Avoid using “it was,” “that was,” and “this was”—among other things
I hired a developmental editor to give me big-picture feedback on my novel. Though her comments overall encouraged me, I have several things to work on and fix.
One was that I used the innocuous phrase “it was” too often. How often? It popped up 126 times, which was an average of once for every 365 words. Interestingly I discovered I used it in spurts, with the phrase being absent in some chapters and plentiful in others.
As I set about to fix the problem, I realized I could simply replace “it was” with “that was” or “this was,” but doing so solved one problem by creating another. I would need to find and replace those phrases, too. While “that was” occurred only twenty-one times, “this was” showed up fifty-six times, for a total of 203 instances for all three.
- The ideal correction involved replacing these trite phrases with a more powerful verb.
- If that solution alluded me, a secondary option was replacing “it,” “that,” or this” with the noun they referenced or a suitable alternative.
- A few times I couldn’t find replacement wording that would convey the same meaning without ballooning the sentence in size or structure, so I left it as is.
- Last was dialogue. I reasoned I could often retain these phrases in speech because that’s how people usually talk. Even so, I did clean up some of the conversations in my story, too.
While I could have slavishly reworked every occurrence of these offending phrases, I felt inclined to leave some in to maintain the flow or clarity of the story.
In the end I left “it was” in twelve times; “that was,” three times; and “this was,” four times. This reduced my total number of offenses from 203 down to only nineteen, a 94 percent reduction.
Now my next task is to develop a habit were I don’t use “it was,” “that was,” or “this was” in the first place. While I long ago put my writing on a “low-that” diet, I suspect this new skill will take a bit longer to develop.
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Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is an author, blogger, and publisher with over 30 years of writing and publishing experience. Check out his book The Successful Author for insider tips and insights.