Poets in Prose

“Always be a poet, even in prose.” ~ Charles Baudelaire

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Rules for Writers #2: About “that” . . .

So, along with The Kiss of Death, or The Word Which Shall Not Be Named, there’s another insidious word which has crept gratuitously, and rather stealthily, into English usage.

That.

Yep.  Little thing, isn’t it? But you’d be AMAZED at the number of times it pops up in all kinds of written works.  Usually unnecessary, “that” does have a rightful place among words, just as does “to be”.  Just not after every phrase or before every verb.  I believe its prevalence in speech has given it unwonted purchase in print.  But that’s neither here nor there.

Just do me, and your readers, a favor.  After you’ve written anything, run a quick search and destroy for “that”.  You might be surprised at how many times that it appears. ;o)

That one feeling, you know?

Sometimes I get this feeling when I’m thinking about, well, stuff.  Something of nostalgia, something of insight, something of treasure.  Ephemeral, yet persistent.  I can recall its shadow at will, remembering what it felt like, but I can never (and I mean, never) summon back the thoughts and connections that conjured it.  It’s as if that feeling belongs to the company of my muse, and heralds her presence like a perfume.

What cues tell you its time to write? That what has come into your head isn’t yours to keep up there, but must be recorded or lost? Or have you captured the secret to recalling those flitting bits of inspiration so you can pursue them to completion?

Not “to be”.

Over the weekend, I read a really cute, really fun, really uplifting romance novel.  (Review to come later, at GoodReads.  I’m Annalea over there, too. Never finding my name on a pencil or fake license plate for my bike has paid off in adulthood.)  I’m glad I wasn’t in a really picky, editorial mood, though.  The first four (eensy-weensy iphone 100-word) pages would have killed any desire to read further.

Why?

In those first pages, I encountered 29 instances of “was”.  Yes, ladies and gentlemen.  Twenty-nine of that verb in those first ~400 words.

And, added to those mind-numbing, soul-stealing, action-killing verbs, I tripped over 31 instances of “that”. (Yet another of my writerly pet peeves.)

I’ll write more, soon, on those two words. But in the meantime, please, puhlllllleeeeeeeasssssse, when you read over what you’ve written, whenever you see any form of “to be” or the word “that”, mark it in red, smack yourself upside the head, and look for the next one. When you’re done, go back to the beginning and rework the sentences so the verbs hidden by “was” or “is” step into the spotlight, and you slap every extraneous “that” right off the page.*

And as you do so, remember George Orwell’s Rule #6: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

Thank you.  You may now return to your regularly-scheduled whatever.

*Even I have to watch myself carefully.  The end of that sentence first appeared as “and every extraneous “that” can be slapped right off the page”.  Do you see it?  “Be” steals the spotlight there, even though slapped still makes a pretty good bid for it.  It only took a little rearranging to exile that little passive bit and tighten things up.