THAT’s the Problem in Revising
“What’s the problem?”
“That’s the problem.”
“I don’t get it.”
“That’s the problem.”
Sound like the old “Who’s on first” routine? Extraneous words that make a writer’s work bulky need to be eliminated. But how can you eliminate words that you don’t even see? That’s the problem, and that is one of those words that can usually be cut. Dialogue that is casual regularly contains many incidences of that word, but when it comes to writing, that can usually be deleted.
Are you still confused? If a sentence is understandable without “that” in it, take it out.
Example: “She told him that she was leaving” reads just fine as “She told him she was leaving.”
But why bother going through your manuscript at all to cut out extraneous words? Writing is a difficult, creative process. It’s nearly impossible to keep all the “rules” of writing in your head while being creative. Rules are a left-brained activity. Every completed manuscript needs revising before you can call it finished. Culling the extraneous “that”s is one step toward ensuring your story is tight, concise, and dramatic.
Other cuts include:
Unnecessary dialogue tags:
If two characters are having a conversation, you don’t need “Mary said” or “Tony replied” after each spoken line or paragraph. They were needed while writing creatively, so you, the writer, could keep track of who was speaking. But when the scene is finished, look for ones that can be removed. If your scene contains multiple speakers, be very cautious in removing dialogue tags!
Adverbial intensifiers (really, very, even, least, of course):
These are easy words to cut. If you’ve set up the scene and the characters properly, these intensifiers are not necessary. A small amount may remain in dialogue, because people do speak that way.
Unquantifiable terms (large, small, tiny, plain, stuff, thing, it):
How big is large? How small is tiny? You can’t explain either term without relating it to something else. So specify. A suitcase-sized block of cheese. A sword thin as a pencil. And as for “thing” and “it,” you need to specify, especially if the last noun mentioned isn’t what you mean: “Irene backed into the dumpster, then drove off in it.” Um, the implied car or the stated dumpster?
“And” (connect with a comma when possible)
“Bob and Alex walked into the store and talked about what was new.” How about: “Bob and Alex walked into the store, talking about what was new.” Be careful, though—the second construction implies they did both at the same time (concurrent) rather than one after another (consecutive). In some cases, “and” might be necessary. We’ll talk more about concurrent versus consecutive another time.
Passive verb add-ons (began to, decided to, started to):
These are wordy and unnecessary. Skip straight to the action verb unless the action is actually interrupted.
“So as to” or “in order to”:
Also wordy. Change these constructions to a simple “to” when possible. “In order to get a raise…” loses two words when changed to “To get a raise…”
In other posts, I’ll discuss different types of cuts that will increase your word count, but in a good way.
Next week we’ll discuss ‘Character Name Consistency’
This series is not meant to be (nor will it be) simple static information.
I’ll be here for each post to answer questions, offer suggestions as necessary, and interact with you.
If there’s something you specifically want (or need!) to see addressed in terms of self-editing, please let me know in the comments under this, or any of the articles of the series.