That Pesky That


I’m in the depths of editing my fantasy novel a deep and dark place filled with moments of complete destitute findings and opposing frivolous joy.  Editing can be such an uplifting and rigid experience wrapped into one snowball to splat you in the face. At this point, I’ve read through the entirety of my manuscript once and was happy with the outcome my fingers placed upon the keyboards. But there was something off about it still. I couldn’t pinpoint what made me scrunch my brow at the words on the page until I watched a vlog about overused words.

I watched the video and cringed at the long list…I think there was 29, but one stood out like a wolf amongst sheep—that.

I use Scrivener (love it and would recommend to many writers, more to come later) and I typed ‘that’ into my search bar. Scrivner filtered through my novel and highlighted ‘that’ in yellow. My screen was drenched in yellows and ‘thats.’

I rejoiced for finding the source of my discomfort while I edited my novel the first go around, but I also banged my head against my desk for the multitude of hours to commence to make these sentences fit.


That pesky ‘that’ made me work hard.

My manuscript was littered with them:

  • “I heard a cry that made my ears bleed.”
  • “Sparrow ran toward the strike so that she didn’t get impaled.”
  • “I couldn’t crane my head to see what had happened, that made everything worse.”

Most of the time I used the pesky word, it was toward the end of a sentence, I surmised it to how my brain thought out the actions or feelings of my characters. Once identified, I realized how it distracted me as a reader and a writer. Some of the sentences could easily be fixed by eliminating the word. For instance the second example:

  • “Sparrow ran toward the strike so that she didn’t get impaled.”
  • “Sparrow ran toward the strike so she didn’t get impaled.”

The other sentences would sound off if I tried this easy solution every time. I found sometimes switching ‘that’ to ‘it’ or ‘which’ helped to give variety to the sentences. For example the first sentence:

  • “I heard a cry that made my ears bleed.”
  • “I heard a cry, it made my ears bleed.”

The use of ‘that’ isn’t always a bad thing either. Sometimes it punctuates a sentence perfectly.

  • “Isn’t that the truth?”
  • “Rith you’re one of the smartest fellas I know, but even you must think that sounded idiotic.”

These two sentences convey ‘that’ in a different way as opposed to using it as more of a placeholder word. When it refers to a phrase or sentence another character had previously stated it flows. There is no hard rule for either option, but excess verbiage of any kind can distract the reader.

This was my first hurdle to overcome and I think I’ve found success while I perused my novel with the yellow highlights of my demise. Another read through complete and now I’m onto the next and one of my most dreaded, the out-loud read-through. This is where I’m sure I’ll find another set of phrases I use in excess, but it’s one of the best practices I’ve used, albeit the most time-consuming.

But that’s the thing about writing. Good things come when you invest time and let them marinate.

If I find any more pesky words in my next stage, I’ll be posting them on here. Until then, write on.


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