14 01 2012

Back in 2009, I took an IIA auditing course in NYC. Of course we never discussed fiction at all, but at one point instructor Rebecca Goza went over her perspective on how auditors should prepare written reports to be reviewed by their senior management. After a commonsense appeal for brevity, she went on to provide a specific recommendation I’d never heard before: to use the Find function in the word processor, and eradicate the word “that” from the report, because the word “that” is never necessary!

Of course, writing fiction is different from writing a summary of audit findings. All the same, I’m impressed at how valuable this was. The word “that”, while extremely useful in spoken dialogue as a demonstrative pronoun, can also be an ugly crutch.

One night, doing a find-and-replace of the word “that”, I took off a total of 800 words! Not all of the eliminated words were the word “that”, of course; most came from the re-working of many passages this mass deletion had made necessary. The re-worked passages were generally shorter, occasionally longer, but always packed more punch.

One battle scene started with this: His mind couldn’t possibly hold enough magic to destroy them all, but that wasn’t necessary.

It ended like this: He couldn’t hold enough magic in his mind to destroy them all, but he didn’t need to.

Our understanding of the word “that” forces us to step outside the visceral, so we can compartmentalize our thoughts, arranging them in a sort of internal flowchart. Taking it out of this particular sentence definitely helped keep the character, and the reader, in the battle (right where they both should be). In the above example, “that” is a demonstrative pronoun representing a concept (the premise that the hero’s mind can hold enough magic to destroy all his enemies) — directly after that concept was already spelled out. Dull, dull, dull.

Of course, some “thats” made the cut: when the word “that” is used as a demonstrative pronoun, where it directly and unambiguously represents something visceral . . . it can stay.

He grabbed his rifle. “I think that’s a crocodile.”