Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Eradicating Thats, or, Pet Words & Why We Love Them

Scene from the Aqua Follies, part of Seattle's 1950s Seafair celebration.

For the last two days, I've been working on lowering the number of times the word "that" appears in my current WIP, Aqua Follies. I started at just under 360. I'm at 136 now, and my goal is to get it down to around 50. 

Yep, my WIP is on a that diet.

And when I'm done with that (heh), I'm going to move on to the next word on my Pet Word List.


Now, was is a fairly useful word. I mean, states of being are ubiquitous, unless the story is happening in a vacuum. (Momentary existential tangent!) On my was pass, I'll look for examples of passive voice construction - and the reasons for avoiding passive voice make a whole 'nother blog post. (Though you can jump HERE for some examples of the difference between passive and active voice.)

Pet words are a problem for a number of reasons, but the most important one is they make your work boring. With all the words in the English language, you're going to make me read just 400 times in your novel? Seriously? Or then there was the NYT bestselling author who started three sentences in the same paragraph with the word meanwhile. Monotonous, careless, and actually kind of funny, in a not-terribly-amusing way.

I find if I repeat a word too often, I'm writing lazy. When I do a pet word search to clean up the frequent flyers, I almost always improve clarity, and often manage to communicate my meaning in fewer words. Consider the next couple sentences...

Jack Dodson was slender, with a receding hairline and a gaze that said just get to the point.


Jack Dodson was slender, with a receding hairline and a just-get-to-the-point gaze.

IMHO (and you're welcome to disagree) the edited version is cleaner and  tighter. It gets rid of the micro-conflict created by "gaze...said", which could be kind of fun, but could also be tiresome if it bumps the reader either because gazes don't speak or because it's heading toward clicheville.

Clicheville. The place you never, ever want to go.

Here's another example of how getting rid of a pet word like that can improve your language. This edit has the added bonus of getting rid of a was, too.

The other verdict Russell reached was that regardless of how things worked out with Skip, he wanted to stay in Seattle, where he could smell the salty ocean air from just about everywhere, and where he could walk into a bar with other men who thought like he did.


His moment of insight brought him to a second conclusion. Regardless of how things worked out with Skip, Russell wanted to stay in Seattle...

They both deliver the same information, but I think the second version is a little more polished, which fits better with the upper middle-class, college educated POV character.

So pet words make your work boring, and fixing them will make your writing stronger. Sounds simple, right? Except for the fact that I've spent the last two days eradicating thats, and I've got about 20 other words on my list. 

This might take a while.

The subject of pet words has come up on a couple different Facebook groups I'm on, and minimizing pet words is the kind of thing that'll impress a prospective agent or editor. My observation has been that my pet words change, depending on the project I'm working on, which is why I keep a running list. Writing teacher Rayne Hall will say that a word shouldn't appear more than one time in 1000 words, so I use that as my general rule of thumb.

What about you? Do you have pet words that turn up again and again in your manuscript? If you're not sure, jump HERE to a pretty good blog post that includes a list of common pet words. Check it out, then see how many times you use some of these in your work. (And you'll get bonus points if you leave your top three pet words in the comments!)



  1. I LOVE that your one sentence was 49 words. It's a great sentence - either one- the edited or beginning one- My crit partners are always chopping my long sentences. I like them, myself.

  2. Oh shit. Now I'm going to be paranoid about sentence length. There's always something...

  3. When I first started writing I took advice from an agent's Q&A telling writers to remove all the unnecessary 'thats.' I had a whole lot of them in there. Was my next favorite, until my editor beat it out of me. Now it's all about look and turn.

  4. Ah yes, turn & look. Two very good words.
    Or NOT!

  5. You should see my list of overused words! But I wanted to comment on THAT because sometimes, you do need it for clarity. I've had a number of clients who have removed it across the board and sometimes, I'll sit and stare cross-eyed at their sentences until I figure out that yep, they've gone on a THAT binge and taken out the needed ones. And don't overwrite in your quest to remove THAT and WAS; being too self-consciously fancy is a sign of inexperience.

  6. 'That' is something I try to cut as I go... I keep writing it and cutting it out again.

    Is there some cool piece of software that will analyse your work for pet words? I know you can throw it in a wordle to get an idea, but I'm wondering whether there's something more scientific.

  7. It's a fine line, Susan, because some thats are necessary. I got the count in my current WIP down to 91, and I think that's where it'll stay. The ones that need to go are the ones that add to the wordiness. I almost always try to get my ideas across in the most direct way possible.

  8. There's the Hemingway App, Ellen. (http://www.hemingwayapp.com) You can copy chunks of your work into it, and it'll identify adverbs, passive voice, complicated sentence structure &/or words or phrases that could be simpler. Beyond that, I just keep a running list of words I know I like and periodically check how often they appear in the manuscript.