#amwriting: don’t gut your novel

Excalibur London_Film_Museum_ via Wikipedia

This post has nothing to do with swords, but I felt one should be pictured, so here is Excalibur.

I have another novel in the editing process, one with many sections written before I embarked on my quest to discover how to write. I am now culling many unnecessary words and awkward phrases from the older sections.

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you know the word “that” is like a keyboard tic for me. I use it a lot in my personal speech, and it falls into my work with a little too much regularity. I thought I had them pretty well under control, but one doesn’t see one’s own work with eyes of the disinterested reader.

Because of this, my editor and I are now combing each section for words I can eliminate and still retain the flow of the narrative.

Yes, I know I claim to be an editor. But I am first and foremost a writer, so I do have an editor because an unbiased eye is critical to producing a good, tight, manuscript.

When it comes to eliminating the word “that,” it’s crucial you look at each instance of how it is used.  Sometimes, “that” is the only word for a given situation. If a particular idea can’t be conveyed any other way, for the love of Tolstoy, use it. Don’t gut your prose just because some online guru tells you ‘that’ is the devil. If you remove every instance of “that” you’ll end up with a mess on your hands.

And just so you know, “that” and “which” are not interchangeable so you can’t just change every instance of “that” to “which.”

“That” is a pronoun used to identify a specific person or thing observed by the speaker, a determiner, an adverb, and a conjunction.

  1. “That’s his dog on the curb.” (Identifier)
  2. “Look at that red car.” (Determiner)
  3. “I wouldn’t go that far.” (Adverb)
  4. “She claimed that she was married.” (Conjunction)

In the case of number 4, the sentence would be stronger without it. Most of the time, prose is made stronger when the word “that” is simply cut and not replaced with anything. I say most, but not all of the time. Use common sense and if a beta reader runs amok in your manuscript telling you ax “this and that,” examine each instance of what has their undies in a twist and try to see why they are pointing it out.

There are cases where only “that” will suffice. When do we use the word “that?” We use it when we have something called a ‘Restrictive Clause’:

Quote from Grammar Girl, “A restrictive clause is just part of a sentence that you can’t get rid of because it specifically restricts some other part of the sentence.”  She goes on to give a specific example of a restrictive clause: “Gems that sparkle often elicit forgiveness.”  See?  Not just any gems elicit forgiveness in this sentence. Only gems that sparkle bring about clemency. In this sentence, forgiveness is restricted to one kind of gem.

“Which” is a pronoun asking for information. It specifies one or more people (or things) from a particular set, and it is also a determiner:

  1. “Which are the best diapers for newborns?” (Pronoun)
  2. “I’m looking at a house which is for sale on Black Lake.” (Determiner)

Go lightly with “which” and “that” but use them when they are required.

keep clam and proofreadThe same common sense approach goes for “very.” I seldom need to use it, but I do when it’s required. However, some people employ it too frequently, and it’s rarely needed in the context they  place it, fluffing up the word count. As with every word, there are times when it’s the only one that will convey an idea crucial to your story.

Mark Twain had a perfect comment regarding overusing “very.”

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

I’d love to be that editor.


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6 responses to “#amwriting: don’t gut your novel

  1. Stephen

    To write with 100% correctness is to write like an English professor. Not all characters are English professors. Most are not educated to the level of an English professor and thus do not express themselves in the way an English professor would. Everything comes from the character, including speech mannerisms, and to use “that” as a correct connector would sound less than authentic for many characters; however, it may be used in exposition when it is actually the author-as-narrator that is speaking. This is all that need be said by the English professor who regularly comments here, which is really the only blog upon which such a professor regularly comments; indeed, the subjects broached on this blog are such that one must comment more often than not! Therefore, a comment has been made.

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  2. I just finished an editing run focused solely on ‘that’, and removed over 300 of the sneaky blighters! Like you, I don’t even notice them when I’m writing, but it was a shock to discover so many totally unnecessary instances of a single word.

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  3. Misuse of “that” is a common error, as well as the over use of “always” and “never.” I have another pet to add to the list of peeves. “Because.” In fiction, especially in any realist-based fiction (and fantasy starts with a base in realism), the word “because” suggests a direct cause and effect relationship, and where characters and their motivations are concerned, it is rarely the case that A causes B and knowing A explains B. if our characters can be so dismissed, there is something inadequate in the way they’ve been imagined.

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    • Yes–guilty as charged. I have made such an effort to cure myself of that habit too. We have to show the cause and effect, or we aren’t doing our job. Readers of all genres (myself included) want to see and feel the story as they are reading it. And what you have just said is true–if you can’t write reality-based work, you can’t write fantasy. The writer must convey a believable reality or his/her work won’t be immersive for the reader.