The One Trick That Will Improve Your Writing — Instantly!

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You’ve probably seen the ads that promise to melt fat or make you rich or any other difficult endeavor… instantly. And we all know that’s nonsense, but in an age of instant gratification, who doesn’t want something terrific to happen with minimal effort right now?

Writing is hard work. It takes talent, dedication, perseverance, a lot of thought, a thick skin, and a willingness to do it when it’s the last thing in the world you want to do. No way around that.

But wouldn’t it be grand if there were just one thing that could improve writing… instantly?

Rejoice. There is!

Your writing mentors, your critique groups, the books you read are probably all telling you the same thing: you need to tighten your writing. Tightening doesn’t necessarily mean creating smaller sentences (I come from a culture where no one uses one word when fourteen will do, and we’ve produced some brilliant literature); it means paying attention to how your writing can express the same thing in a more compact, direct manner. And in the process, you’ll find it’s clearer.

So are you ready for the trick?

Here it is:

1. Open your opus in Microsoft Word (I know, I know, but it’s the industry standard).

2. Perform a search on the word “that.”

3. Examine every instance where the word appears, and determine whether or not you need it.

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There you go. It really is that simple. Do this, and you’ll take the clutter, or at least part of it, out of your writing.

I’m currently doing my first round of self-editing on a YA novel I’ve been working on. Even as I was considering writing this article, I came across the following:

  • You must become the person that I know you can be
  • The odd costumes that those people wore
  • The names that I heard and promptly forgot
  • There’s no reason to think that anyone will be ready
  • Somehow I’d known that I wasn’t yet finished with Camlach

Look at those fragments. Do you see any in which “that” advances the narrative? Makes it easier to understand? Of course not. Something might be grammatically correct and yet be unnecessary — which in turn makes it incorrect from a usage point of view.

In general, anytime “that” follows a verb, it can easily be eliminated. So check those instances first.

I do want to caution you — don’t do a global find-and-replace. There are many instances when “that” is both appropriate and necessary. For example:

  • Do what I say, and after that, you’ll be free.
  • The bird that was singing is silent.
  • If that’s what you think, then go ahead.

Don’t be afraid to look at the context when you’re considering removing an errant “that.”

If you want, you can even go a step further. In many cases, “that are” and “that were” can be eliminated altogether. Consider the following:

  • The examples that were given show how much change we need (this could easily become, “the examples given show how much change we need”).
  • He disagreed with the changes that are in the document (a more streamlined approach is “he disagreed with the changes in the document”).

In this, as in all things, it’s a matter of judgment. Try the sentence out loud. If the use of “that” advances its meaning, then keep it in. If it doesn’t, then take it out.

I’m serious about the difference this exercise will make in your writing. It will be clearer, easier to read, and far more enjoyable for everyone concerned.

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Bestselling novelist of mystery and historical fiction. Writer, editor, & business storyteller at .

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