I Can’t Kill The Editor!

But I want to.

I long to slay the internal editor keeping me from enjoying books the way I used to. But the more I learn about the craft of writing, the harder it is to find books I can get lost in. I can’t shut off the editor. And there are a number of craft issues that feel like 40-grit sandpaper rubbing on my mind.

Can you relate?

With that in mind I’d like to riff on two of my biggest pet peeves of writing:

The unnecessary use of ‘THAT’.

Back in ’84 during my internship at a Seattle radio station, the first thing the news director said to me after hello was, “’That’ is the most overused word in the English language. He was right, and while I realize I’m bailing water on the Titanic to harp on the subject, I’m going to anyway. If we’re supposed to write tight and cut unnecessary words why do we still see “that” everywhere?

An occasional unneeded ‘that’ doesn’t bother me—much. I’m talking every other page or so. But when it’s every paragraph I get irritated. When I see two unneeded ‘that’s’ in one sentence I want to break things.

And when I see it used THREE times in ONE sentence it automatically passes go, collects $200 and takes its rightful place in the That Abuse Hall of Fame.

Here’s an example of a that tri-fecta from a recent issue of Writers Digest. It comes from an article on an agent. First let’s look at the sentence, with the ‘thats’ taken out:

“When I was an editor, I believed when an agent sent me something, and I thought it was terrific, my response was an absolute—and every editor who had it also must have thought it was terrific.”

Did you miss the that’s? Didn’t think so.

Here’s the line again with the ‘thats’ plugged in:

“When I was an editor, I believed THAT when an agent sent me something and I thought it was terrific, THAT my response was an absolute—and THAT every editor who had it also must have thought it was terrific.”

This from is an accomplished editor who is now an accomplished agent. See how easy it is for anyone to let the ‘that’ mosquito buzz their writing?

Here’s another example—from yesterday’s sports page: “FOX Sports has learned THAT the Broncos have been quietly shopping their one-time starter since the NFL Scouting Combine in late February.”

From yesterday’s political pages: “At the risk of annoying supporters of Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, who believe THAT the mainstream news media don’t pay attention to their candidate …”

Why is Everyone Starting to When They Should Just Do It?

Do you notice this one? Writers have their characters starting to do something they could simply do.

“John was starting to worry about the boat.”

Really? How can you start to get worried? The only way it can happen is if something interrupts John and he stops worrying. Why not say, “John worried about the boat.”

I think two pet peeves are enough for the moment. But fear not. We shall visit more in the future. And yes, I apologize. Now you’ll see unneeded ‘that’s’ everywhere as well as people who won’t stop starting.

What about you? Is there a writing faux pas that you can’t help but notice? One that you’d like to point out to us? Tell us about it. We’re starting to listen.

James L. Rubart is the best-selling author of ROOMS, BOOK OF DAYS, and THE CHAIR. During the day he runs Barefoot Marketing which helps businesses and authors make more coin of the realm. In his free time he dirt bikes, hikes, golfs, takes photos, and occasionally does sleight of hand. No, he doesn’t sleep much. He lives with his amazing wife and teenage sons in the Pacific Northwest and still thinks he’s young enough to water ski like a madman. More at www.jameslrubart.com