June 20, 2017

Cut That Out

One of the first things you hopefully realize the first time you edit your work is the habitual repetition of crutch words. By crutch, I mean words or phrases you rely on every few paragraphs instead of expanding your word arsenal. Have you ever read a book that only used one dialogue tag, like "said"? After a few hundred saids, it's the only word you see. A crutch word is akin to a writing tic.

 It's okay the first time around. It's a first draft. The most important thing about crutch words is to recognize your dependence on them and cut them out. One of my worst  crutch words is "moment". I am the queen of moments: in a moment, a sudden moment, at that moment... Take your pick. Banning phrases containing the word "moment" has made me more aware and helped me to stretch as a writer.

Above all, the crutch word that really gets me as a fiction editor and reader is "that". It drives me nuts, even when it's used correctly, because I find it distracting. Some writers use it as a crutch without even thinking about it, because they are thinking as they're writing. I am the worst at overusing this word in a first draft. You can almost see me pausing to think in the middle of the sentence, dropping down "that" to fill in the blank between my ideas.

There are grammatical rules for using "that". To get technical, it's required for clauses that begin with  certain subordinating conjunctions. It also comes before clauses clarifying a noun. If you read too much about it, your head will explode.

While some sources insist it's better to include "that" when you're uncertain, rather than be wrong, I side with my favorite resource, Purdue OWL. The writing lab at Purdue states "that" as a relative pronoun is a must for formal English, but otherwise isn't such a big deal if the sentence makes sense without it. In other words, like the Pirates' Code, I tend to think of rules for "that" as guidelines.

In my opinion, the easiest rule of thumb for using "that" in fiction is to eliminate it from the sentence if possible. If the sentence makes sense without it, cut it out. Otherwise, it's an extra word, unnecessary dressage, and sometimes, in my opinion, self-indulgent.

So what's your poison? What words do you find yourself repeating in your emails or journal? If you're a writer, which words fall too easily from your mind? I challenge you to a "that" search this week. Pull out your most recent work and see how many times it pops up. It may just be a crutch you didn't know you had.

Stay balanced,
~Danielle Thorne


Sherry Fundin said...

I am a reader, but when I write reviews, I have become more aware of these issues. Great post.
sherry @ fundinmental

Danielle Thorne said...

Thank you for your comment. I think we all have word crutches, some verbal,others written. I'm not the best public speaker because of my "ums" and "uhs".