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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

I Can't Kill The Editor!

But I want to.

I long to slay the internal editor keeping me from enjoying books the way I used to. But the more I learn about the craft of writing, the harder it is to find books I can get lost in. I can’t shut off the editor. And there are a number of craft issues that feel like 40-grit sandpaper rubbing on my mind.

Can you relate?

With that in mind I’d like to riff on two of my biggest pet peeves of writing:

The unnecessary use of ‘THAT’.

Back in ’84 during my internship at a Seattle radio station, the first thing the news director said to me after hello was, “’That’ is the most overused word in the English language. He was right, and while I realize I’m bailing water on the Titanic to harp on the subject, I’m going to anyway. If we’re supposed to write tight and cut unnecessary words why do we still see “that” everywhere?

An occasional unneeded ‘that’ doesn’t bother me—much. I’m talking every other page or so. But when it’s every paragraph I get irritated. When I see two unneeded ‘that’s’ in one sentence I want to break things.

And when I see it used THREE times in ONE sentence it automatically passes go, collects $200 and takes its rightful place in the That Abuse Hall of Fame.

Here’s an example of a that tri-fecta from a recent issue of Writers Digest. It comes from an article on an agent. First let’s look at the sentence, with the ‘thats’ taken out:

“When I was an editor, I believed when an agent sent me something, and I thought it was terrific, my response was an absolute—and every editor who had it also must have thought it was terrific.”

Did you miss the that’s? Didn’t think so.

Here’s the line again with the ‘thats’ plugged in:

“When I was an editor, I believed THAT when an agent sent me something and I thought it was terrific, THAT my response was an absolute—and THAT every editor who had it also must have thought it was terrific.”

This from is an accomplished editor who is now an accomplished agent. See how easy it is for anyone to let the ‘that’ mosquito buzz their writing?

Here’s another example—from yesterday’s sports page: “FOX Sports has learned THAT the Broncos have been quietly shopping their one-time starter since the NFL Scouting Combine in late February.”

From yesterday’s political pages: “At the risk of annoying supporters of Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, who believe THAT the mainstream news media don't pay attention to their candidate …”

Why is Everyone Starting to When They Should Just Do It?

Do you notice this one? Writers have their characters starting to do something they could simply do.

“John was starting to worry about the boat.”

Really? How can you start to get worried? The only way it can happen is if something interrupts John and he stops worrying. Why not say, “John worried about the boat.”

I think two pet peeves are enough for the moment. But fear not. We shall visit more in the future. And yes, I apologize. Now you’ll see unneeded ‘that’s’ everywhere as well as people who won’t stop starting.

What about you? Is there a writing faux pas that you can’t help but notice? One that you’d like to point out to us? Tell us about it. We’re starting to listen.

James L. Rubart is the best-selling author of ROOMS, BOOK OF DAYS, and THE CHAIR. During the day he runs Barefoot Marketing which helps businesses and authors make more coin of the realm. In his free time he dirt bikes, hikes, golfs, takes photos, and occasionally does sleight of hand. No, he doesn’t sleep much. He lives with his amazing wife and teenage sons in the Pacific Northwest and still thinks he’s young enough to water ski like a madman. More at


  1. I'm with you all the way on the "thats." I fact, I'm about to comb through my WIP and look for them.
    But I don't see how it can always be wrong to have a character "start" to do something. In your example, the boat may have been in some danger before, but John did not become worried up until now. It seems to me the phrase "was starting to" could show a change or progression.

    From another angle, I had a character at his office who "started looking over the expense reports..."
    In that case, reviewing the reports was a project that might take an hour or more. Here I used the word "started" to indicate an ongoing action that he would not complete before the next thing happened. As opposed to a quickly accomplished one like "He set his coffee down." (And he did get interrupted, but my critique group said to use "looked over" anyway. The nerve!)

    As a novice, I'd be interested in hearing more about this sort of thing. How would others express a turning point, a change, or the launch of an ongoing action?

    Thanks! I always learn a lot here.

  2. While I understand the underlying purpose of ommitting "starting to" in your writing, you actually CAN start to worry. You start to worry about your boat only when you're a 100 miles out and you notice a hole that's taking on water.

    But "starting to" is a perfectly logical flow of thought.

  3. That was a great post. I'm starting to like you.

  4. The subject of "that" is near to my heart. About ten years ago, I worked as assistant to an attorney who loved the word. The more times he could use it in a sentence, the happier he was. When I typed his dictation, I'd leave it out. When he reviewed and revised, he'd put it back in. I dutifully added it when instructed. But whenever I see an unnecessary "that" (which is often!), I think of that former boss. And grind my teeth.

    In defense of attorneys, however, I had another boss who was an excellent writer. So they're not all bad, contrary to popular opinion.

    And that's all I have to say about that.

  5. You hit my hot button, Jim. I'm always catching my crit partners for unnecessary thats. On the other hand, I've got them so paranoid, I've had to actually add one once. LOL I'm really glad you posted this! Rock on!

  6. Unnecessary thats are a problem, for sure. But I actually did find the first example you used to be clunky without the first "that." Maybe I'm just "that" type of girl ...

    And I agree with several commenters that you definitely can be "starting to" do something. I also agree that it can be overused.

    (I will be combing my WIP, now, too.)


    1. Um ... "I agree with several commenters you can definitely be" ... does that work better without the "that"? Doesn't feel like it to me. At any rate, I can't believe I "that-ed" in the response!

  7. Our local DJ is in love with "as well" - the 21st century "you know."
    I can't read Allan Eckert - too many adverbs!

  8. I gotta say, I kind of think the first "that" helps the sentence flow better (I believed THAT when an agent...). Sometimes, our writing imitates the way people actually talk. But yes, THREE "that's" are too many. And the sentence is poorly worded to begin with.

    I think once you've been edited, you begin to recognize your own mistakes in books you see/read. I recently picked up an anxiously awaited historical fiction novel, only to find she'd butchered the dialogue tags and thrown in adverbs everywhere. And this is a SOON-TO-BE bestselling author!

    So sometimes, life just isn't fair.

    Thanks for the post!

  9. Speaking of that

    I knew that that that that that man used was wrong!

  10. Michelle, I'm starting ... uh, I like you too. :)

    Janice, BK, Stacy, I agree you can start to worry IF you have the action stop. "John started to worry about the boat, but a sailboat arrived a few seconds later and rescued him."

    If there is no interruption then get rid of the starting or started.

    Yvonne, Ane, glad I'm not the only one!

    Yes, Heather/Stacy the sentence I used as an example is awkward, but three thats in one sentence are rare. The examples from the news stories are better.

  11. I think the "that" caution has been taught so vehemently recently that on manuscripts I critique I often end up having to add more back in than I take out.

    The overdone and wrongly used word I often catch in my own writing is "just." Usually when I use "just" what I actually mean is merely, simply, or only. Often I don't need any word there at all. Otherwise, I just, I mean, I SIMPLY replace it with one of the above.

    1. "Just" is my biggest weasel word! I have to go back and change or delete a gazillion of them. LOL I learned early on about "that" and use it only for clarification. But I make up for it in "justs." :o)

  12. Deb,

    Good point. Sometimes 'that' is needed. And sometimes 'just' works. I take all rules as guidelines, but as the cliche says, "Ya gots to know the rules before ye go to breakin' 'em."

  13. My name is Marti Pieper, and I am a that-aholic.

    However, Cec Murphey's teaching helped me eliminate that, just, really, and other unnecessary words from my writing. Like you, I have a hard time BEGINNING TO read work THAT uses VERY unnecessary words.

    Still, I don't think those bother me as much as the use of "unnecessary" quotation marks. Want to brand yourself as an "amateur"? Add quotation marks where they don't belong.

    I could belabor my point, but you might think that THAT I was STARTING TO "lose it."

  14. Just have to say THAT I have an article titled "Pop Goes the Weasel" in the premiere issue of ACFW Journal that talks about this very thing––weasel words! The magazine started arriving in members' mailboxes today (and I say started, Jim, because I haven't gotten my issue yet!)

    : )

  15. LOVE this post! I was beginning to think THAT I was the only one who hates THAT! I had a super journalism teacher in college and he beat it into us to scrap THAT word! And I did a search for "started" on my first MS and was startled to find near hundreds of the little boogers. "JUST" is another biggie for me THAT I've learned to ixnay by the tens. Thanks for this post THAT really made my day!


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