EDITING 101: 03 – THAT’s the Problem in Revising…

Originally posted as the Dun Writin’—Now Whut? series on this blog, EDITING 101 is a weekly refresher series for some of you and brand new for others.

Courtesy of Adirondack Editing

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’

To see the index and catch up with missed episodes of this series – CLICK HERE


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.





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58 thoughts on “EDITING 101: 03 – THAT’s the Problem in Revising…

  1. Susan,
    THANK You, Thank you, thank you! I so appreciate this post. And I love the humorous way you’ve presented it.
    The overuse of this word (that) has been a pet-peeve of mine a long time– ever since I was made aware of it in a writing workshop at Southwest Writers, years ago. I am now an editor (among other things) mostly for holistic wellness writers. I preach this all the time. They look at me like I have three heads. Of course, they like to fight me on it– at first. Until that is, they see how much stronger their writing becomes.
    Bless you!
    Paula High,
    Albuquerque, NM, USA

    Liked by 2 people

      • LOL Oh no! Oops! 🙂 Funny how there are so many times when we might feel like no one listens. Then– on the other hand– you have the times when they seem to over-listen!
        Have a great week.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Susan, I cmpletely agree with you. Ihope this isn’t too long — a brief scene from my WI, a comedy crime novel set in L.A., titled Hurricane Kretschman”:
    ““So, what do we like, got?” Kenny interrogated the Big Dog while they swapped fist bumps.

    Fish chuckled. “You’re gonna love this, guys. We got some crazy-ass Tea Partier in Culver City, who took it on himself to secede from the Union.”

    “He means a sovereign individual.” Einstein supplied the subtitles, because Kenny was either lost in the ozone again or zooming some righteous waves the day this was covered in his high school history class. “A person who basically becomes his own independent country.”


    “And right now,” Fish couldn’t stop chuckling. “The independent nation of Hiram Wiedermayer owes the city of L.A about sixteen hundred bucks in unpaid parking tickets, two grand worth of court costs and twenty five large for jumping bail.”

    “Whoa, I could be like, The People’s Republic of Kennyland! Or, what about like, the independent nation of Kenny-vania!” Fish’s third in command giggled at the prospect. “Dudes, that would be like, s-o-o-o freakin’ epic!”

    “Ok, Mr. Prime Minister,” Einstein tapped his bud’s shoulder. “Let me ask you a question. You’re now a sovereign individual, right?”

    “Fer sure, Brah. I’m like, s-o-o-o totally sovereign!”

    “Ok, let’s say your presidential palace catches fire, man. Who you gonna call?”

    Kenny shook his head, like his road brother was asking a really, REALLY dumb question.

    “Du-uh! Like, we still got a fire department, Brah.”

    “We do, Kenny. But you don’t. Remember? You’re not part of this country anymore.”


    “Ok,” Fish broke in. “Listen, I hate to break up the civics lesson here, guys. But we got an FTA to round up. Then we’ve gotta hit the road for Sturgis.”

    “Your stuff’s on your bed,” Einstein answered.

    “What about me?” Shawna elbowed her way into the conversation. “Don’t I get stuff?”

    “Wait a minute,” Fish stopped her in her tracks. “I thought we settled this. You’re staying here.”

    Kretschman silently shook her head at Fish and then looked over to Einstein.

    “On the bed, next to Fish’s gear. No worries, man. Kenny and I have tons of extras.”

    She smiled and walk into the house, stopping at the doorway to give Fish a little peck on the cheek.

    “Now it’s settled, SweetPea.”

    The Big Dog watched Shawna as she continued through the door and down the hallway to his bedroom. Then he turned to glower at Einstein, who just shrugged.”

    We are officially done with the writing, editing and Beta reads. Just waiting for a cover design, and Hurricne Kretschman will be ready to make landfall.

    Apologies if I took up too much space, Susan

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Could I possibly be that guilty of overusing that dreaded word? Well yes. But that being said, “that” only appears in first drafts and is snipped out immediately. I usually see “that” and do some operating before the editor sees it. You can ask my editor all about that. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I’ve said it twice before but feel compelled to repeat: I am so grateful for this series!

    I have a question, Susan, but it’s on a different note. Hope you don’t mind answering. My copy editor suggested replacing the following question mark with a period: “Some things never change, eh dad?” she managed to squeak out . . .” I think it needs a question mark.

    Thank you, Chris and Susan, for this incredible series. Shared across my pages 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Tina! Thanks for the question. There are some questions that are called “indirect” that don’t use a question mark. For instance: “I wonder if the Ape will approve this comment.” When we speak it aloud in English, many times we raise our voice at the end, like it’s a question, so it can be confusing.

      Then there are statements (or demands) that also look like a question: “I’m asking if you will pay me today.” It sounds like a question, but it’s really not. Rhetorical questions supposedly also fall under this rule. The page I referenced for answering this coherently (hahaha!) said that “Will you kids knock it off” is also an indirect/rhetorical question, but I have to admit that I’d want to see a question mark there (or an exclamation point).

      The sentence you gave could easily be seen as an indirect or rhetorical question, so I see why the editor changed it. But most readers would normally expect a question mark there and might think it’s an error if it’s only a period. Since you paid for your editor’s professional opinion and expertise, it’s generally wise to accept their edits. But it is your book, and if you want a question mark there, it looks fine. 🙂

      Diplomatic enough for everyone? 😀

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Reblogged this on TINA FRISCO and commented:
    Editing can be a nightmare! But Susan Uttendorfsky takes some of the fright out of it in her incredible Editing 101 series on The Story Reading Ape’s blog. A big thank you to both Chris and Susan for hosting and sharing 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  6. This is awesome – thank you for sharing! 😀 I’m about to start editing, and this is a big help. Lol, I am DEFINITELY too wordy, and have a bad habit of using unquantifiable terms sometimes. A lot of times. *cough, cough* All the time. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I, too, have a problem with “that,” and one of my last polishing steps is to search for every instance. “Give me that book” is fine. “He told her that he was coming” is not; chop it out. “I enjoyed the breeze that ruffled the curtains”– change “that ruffled” to “ruffling.” It’s tedious, but it tightens up the writing a lot.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Reblogged this on brittneysahin and commented:
    Great advice!

    I also go through and control find the word “just” and “and then” … I always find them when editing & cut almost all if possible (the ones my editor doesn’t catch). I didn’t know to do all this with my first books– all a learning process!


    Liked by 2 people


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