The Word “That” – Let’s Look at That

image by geralt
image by geralt

Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript in 30 Days is chock-full of practical techniques. Numerous examples clarify problem areas and provide workable solutions. The action steps and blah busters McCarthy suggests will help you improve every sentence, every paragraph of your novel. If you follow her advice and implement her strategies, a publisher will be much more likely to issue you a contract.

—Denise K. Loock, freelance editor,

See more about the book at the end of the post.


We’re told to get rid of as many “thats” as we can. Sometimes we can remove the word “that” and the meaning of the sentence doesn’t change. Other times we can rewrite a sentence and eliminate “that.” Sometimes, we need to keep “that” because the sentence won’t make sense without the word.

Ways the Word “That” Is Used


1. Natural: “I like all the options.” Tina pointed at a red dress. “But I’ll take that one.”

Could rewrite & remove: “I like all the options.” Tina pointed at a dress. “But I’ll take the red one.”

2. With “that” – gives punch: “Why’d you take the job?”

                                             “I need the money. That’s why.”

Without “that” – is explanatory: “Why’d you take the job?”

                                                 “Because I need the money.”

Rewrite and Remove

3. Wordy: Jace took the time that was needed to do the job.

Better: Jace took the time needed to do the job. 

4. So That: She tiptoed so that he wouldn’t hear her footsteps.

Better: She tiptoed so he wouldn’t hear her footsteps.

5. Unnecessary: He was so involved that he missed the point.

Better: He was so involved he missed the point.

6. “That repeated: He told her to sit three times. He said that he disliked repeating that.

Better: He told her to sit three times. He said he disliked repeating that.

Could rewrite: He told her to sit three times. He said he disliked repeating commands.

7. Unnecessary: Neither party was happy with the compromise that they’d reached.

Better: Neither party was happy with the compromise they’d reached.

Necessary or Useful

8. Wordy: He could build an empire, but building an empire would take a long time.

Better: He could build an empire, but that would take a long time.

9. Necessary: “Love Me Tender” was the one song that made her weep.

Removal doesn’t work: “Love Me Tender: was the one song made her weep.

Rewrite changes meaning: “Love Me Tender” made her weep.

10. Helpful connector: He guffawed. Jill raised her eyebrows at that but was grateful for his company.

May not connect guffaw and raised eyebrows: He guffawed. Jill raised her eyebrows but was grateful for his company.

If “that” isn’t a word you overuse, what pesky word sneaks into your writing too often?

Buy Page

I finished reading Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript in 30 Days. I have AND will highly recommend it to anyone who dabbles in fiction. It’s one of the best “how to” books I’ve ever read.

—Marsha Hubler, Director Montrose Christian Writers Conference

If you want to increase your chance of hearing yes instead of sorry or not a fit for our list at this time, this book is for you. If you want to develop stronger story plots with characters that are hard to put down, this book is for you. Through McCarthy’s checklists and helpful exercises and corresponding examples, you will learn how to raise the tension, hone your voice, and polish your manuscript. I need this book for my clients and the many conferees I meet at writer’s conferences around the country. Thank you, Zoe. A huge, #thumbsup, for Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript in 30 Days.  

—Diana L. Flegal, literary agent, and freelance editor

Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript is a self-editing encyclopedia! Each chapter sets up the targeted technique, examples show what to look for in your manuscript, then proven actions are provided to take your writing to the next level. Whether you are a seasoned writer or a newbie, you need this book! 

—Sally Shupe, freelance editor, aspiring author

Need to rework your book? Zoe M. McCarthy’s step-by-step reference guide leads you through the process, helping you fight feeling overwhelmed and wrangle your manuscript into publishable shape in 30 days. Tailor Your Manuscript delivers a clear and comprehensive action plan.

—Elizabeth Spann Craig, Twitteriffic owner, bestselling cozy mystery author of the “Myrtle Clover Mysteries,” the “Southern Quilting Mysteries,” and the “Memphis Barbeque Mysteries,”  

Zoe’s book, Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript in 30 Days, is a fresh and innovative refocusing of your novel or novella. Through a few simple—and fun—steps, Zoe helps writers take their not-ready-for-publication and/or rejected manuscripts to a spit-polish finish. Writing is hard work, yes, but it doesn’t have to be difficult.

—Eva Marie Everson, best-selling and multiple award-winning author, conference director, president of Word Weavers International, Inc.

A concise, detailed, step by step resource for all writers. 

— Jamie West, editor coordinator, Pelican Book Group

Zoe’s writing blog has always intrigued me. As a high school English teacher, I can attest that her tips on good grammar and her hints for excellent sentence and paragraph structure are spot on. But as an author, I also appreciate her ever-present advice that excellent skills are not enough: you must tell a good story, too. This book clearly shows how to do it all.

—Tanya Hanson, “Writing the Trails to Tenderness,” author of Christmas Lights, Outlaw Heart, Hearts Crossing Ranch anthology, and coming in 2019, Tainted Lady, Heart of Hope, and Angel Heart.

McCarthy crafted an amazing self-help book that will strengthen any writer, whether new or seasoned, with guidance and self-evaluation tools.

–Erin Unger, author of Practicing Murder, releasing in 2019

Zoe has developed a guiding resource for beginning writers. Her method is designed for brainstorming, shaping, and revising an early draft of a manuscript. General and specific tips are offered for applying rules of writing to enhance one’s story for a workable second draft. By exploring the plot line of Love Comes Softly writers may examine their own work for stronger plot and characterization. Valuable tools are offered that enable the writer to develop a workable draft in 30 days!

—Yvonne Lehman, award-winning, best-selling author of 48 novels

Don’t Let Weasel Words Suck the Life From Your Writing

“Nothing marks a skilled writer as much as his ability to write tight.” — Angela Hunt


Sometimes the words we use in our writing detract from other words in our stories.

Think of the alleged egg-sucking habits of weasels. An egg a weasel has sucked empty will look intact to the casual observer.

by galsio
by galsio

Weasel words suck energy from the victim words next to them. The victim words are there, but weaker.

Weasel words are sometimes the right words in dialogue if they’re consistent with the way characters would speak. Otherwise, if they rob the punch of adjacent words, delete them.


Examples of Weasel Words


256px-PSM_V54_D810_Weasel Just 

Just works fine when used for showing time. She could tell by his warm coffee mug that he’d just left. If we remove just, it changes the meaning of the sentence. 

Consider I just hate being late. Just robs half the power of hate. Without just, all the emphasis is appropriately on hate

I hate being late.

  256px-PSM_V54_D810_WeaselVery & Rather 

Do degrees of wrong and well help the next two sentences? Disliking her brother was very wrong. He took the news rather well. Are the words wrong and well vague? No. 

Very, sucks out wrong’s decisive nature. Ditto for rather describing well. 

Disliking her brother was wrong. 

He took the news well.

256px-PSM_V54_D810_Weasel Some

She poured some corn into the bowl. Some is unnecessary. We get the image with: She poured corn into the bowl.

  256px-PSM_V54_D810_WeaselImmediately & Suddenly

She slapped his face. He immediately grabbed her arm. If we remove immediately, do we think he did something else before he grabbed her arm? Immediately, powers down the action in grabbed.

She slapped his face. He grabbed her arm. 

Suddenly: After midnight, the doorbell suddenly chimed. Eva froze.

Suddenly tells us nothing new. It doesn’t add fear. The time of night and Eva’s reaction shows us the scariness of the passage. Let chimed retain it’s own powerful sound.

 After midnight, the doorbell chimed. Eva froze.

256px-PSM_V54_D810_Weasel Sure 

Compare: He sure loved her. and He loved her. Sure drains the love out of loved.


His sister really deteriorated after Paul left. Deteriorated is already a strong word. Really separates His sister from her problem and takes the emphasis from deterioration.

His sister deteriorated after Paul left.

256px-PSM_V54_D810_Weasel That 

Be careful on this one. That often helps clarity. But many times it adds wordiness. Try rewording to get rid of thats.

She realized that Randy didn’t care that she was ill, and that made it easier to leave him.

Removing unnecessary thats: She realized Randy didn’t care she was ill, and that made it easier to leave him.

Better would be to reword: Randy’s indifference to her illness made leaving him easier.

by clconroy
by clconroy

Weasel words suck the life from other words. Remove them. Click to tweet.

What are other weasel words commonly used?







3 Tips to Edit Your Writing to Avoid a Reader’s “Huh?”

“It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.”  —Mark Twain

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /

We know exactly what we mean when we write each sentence of our story. We’re surprised when our critique partner or editor doesn’t.


  • Does your editor often mark your work with “vague,” “awkward,” or “huh?”? click to tweet

Here are 3 tips that will improve the clearness of your writing.

Tip 1. Huh? That Couldn’t Happen.

When we put phrases in the wrong place or leave out words we can say something that’s impossible.

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by mensatic

Example: He’d forgotten to tell Alice he’d seen three wild turkeys playing golf the other day.

Turkeys playing golf? Huh?

Be careful in your rewrite or you may create a new problem. For example: He’d forgotten to tell Alice while playing golf the other day he’d seen three wild turkeys.

Golf-hating Alice played golf with him? Huh?

Better Rewrite: Earlier today, he’d forgotten to tell Alice he’d seen three wild turkeys on the golf course the other day.

Watch out for impossible actions in your writing.

Tip 2. Huh? What does “it” or “that” or “her/him” refer to?

Sometimes we use “it” or “that” or a pronoun that could refer to more than one thing or person.

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic /
Image courtesy of imagerymajestic /

Example: She gaped. Maude had told Alex every detail about her past. Maude’s blabbermouth would someday get her in trouble. That hurt her now.

Huh? What hurt? Maude’s gossip, Maude’s blabbermouth, or Maude’s ending up in trouble? Whose past was it? [She]’s or Maude’s? And Maude’s blabbermouth would get whom in trouble? [She] or Maude? That hurt whom? [She] or maybe Maude through a tarnished reputation?

Better Rewrite: Amy gaped. Maude had told Alex every detail about Amy’s past. Maude’s blabbermouth would someday get Maude in trouble. Now, Maude’s gossip had destroyed Amy’s chances to marry Alex.

A lot of names. But the reader shouldn’t be confused now. We could revamp the paragraph to cut down some of the names.


  • Watch out for the vague “it,” “that,” or pronoun in your writing. click to tweet

Tip 3. Huh? What did that sentence say?

We pack in several pieces of information and end up with a convoluted sentence.

Example: By reaching across the cement wall, Ziggy grabbed the Tiki torch Mom had put there with the hand she’d burned in last night’s fire lighting up the area with it to expose thieves climbing over it, snagging her sweater in the process.


Huh? Who had the burned hand? And did the Tiki torch or the fire light up the area to expose thieves? Did thieves climb over the wall, the fire, or the Tiki torch? Who snagged her sweater?

Better Rewrite: Ziggy eyed the Tiki torch Mom had put near the wall to expose thieves entering the yard. She reached the hand she’d burned in last night’s fire across the cement wall and grabbed the torch, snagging her sweater in the process.


  • Watch out for convoluted, awkward sentences in your writing. click to tweet

What other tips do you have to help writers keep their writing clear?