That Evil That is the Word “That”

By Daniel Willers

When I first started writing, I started by reading. I picked up tons of books about craft, editing, planning, plotting, you name it. One of the many things I learned is to avoid using a particular word over and over. Some words are immune (he, she, it, and said when there are people talking can be unavoidable). I thought I had proofread these all out, verbs used multiple times in the same paragraph, adjectives or names put in the same sentence, and adverbs were culled or rewritten.

I was floored when one of my critique partners pointed out that I used the word “that” a lot. I mean a whole lot. It didn’t need to be there. It added nothing to the sentence. It was useless. When it was pointed out, I started looking for other filler words. When someone is giving a speech, we can hear when they are using words like uh, um, like, and, but, and so forth. If they do it a lot, you get distracted from what they are saying by how they are saying it. Their speech loses its punch. Filler words do the same thing in your writing.

Here’s an example:

Muriel crept down the hallway. She knew that there were guards somewhere in the building. She felt her heart pounding as she moved slowly down the hall so that she would be absolutely silent. Checking door handles as she went, she found only one that was locked. This had to be it. Behind this door was her quarry.

Not terrible (I hope). But look at how much more punch it has when I get rid of some of the words that don’t need to be there.

Muriel crept from door to door. Guards were in the building, somewhere. Her heart pounded as she crept down the hallway, checking every handle as she went. Only one was locked. Her quarry had to be behind this door.

By deleting and combining, the writing is more immediate and puts the reader more into the role of the protagonist.

Look for those filler words. Instead of having them feel their heart pounding, have it pound! Instead of hearing the guards running down the hall, describe the thump of their boots, the shouting, whatever. Don’t say characters know stuff, show that they know it. Keep your reader in the moment. Your writing will be all the stronger for it.

Beth Burgmeyer

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