A Quick Ode Against “That” (Or, Eliminating Filler Words)

Too often, we bloat our writing with needless filler words. Some of these fillers take the form of a phrase of three or four words in the place of a single word that would get the job done—such as “took a step” instead of just “stepped.” But some are even sneakier, and one of the sneakiest is “that.” Someone recently DM’d me a blog post highlighting an egregious overuse of the word “that,” which seems to be a growing trend among bloggers and novelists. I comment on these trenders in all humility, because I’ve personally put in my time among their ranks. One of my editors, Linda Yezak, sent back a manuscript looking as if it had the chicken pox thanks to all the needless “thats” she had highlighted.

The trick to eliminating these needless filler words ultimately comes down to recognizing them, and sometimes recognizing them first comes down to noticing them. This is one of those invisible words our brains tend to read right over. We’re proofreading along, on the hunt for those naughty interlopers, and yet we still skim right over them. The trick I’ve developed for making certain I don’t read over them is to run a universal Find/Replace search and replace “that” with a nonsense word. My word of choice happens to be “Boomber,” since there’s no way my brain is going to skip right over that one!

The second factor in eliminating unnecessary “thats” is figuring out which ones really are unnecessary. Necessary varieties include pronouns (as in, “that looks great”) or emphatic adjectives (as in, “did you see that crawdad over there?”). However, “that” used as a conjunction can often go. For example, “I’m sorry that I screamed” would be much better as just “I’m sorry I screamed.” Bottom line, if the sentence reads fine without “that,” it doesn’t need it.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How do you eliminate your needless filler words? Tell me in the comments!

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K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Ahhhhhh!!! You are eliminating half my writing! Though I guess that is a good thing 🙂

  2. Which is correct and, more importantly to me, WHY?
    This lady is in an office. Those in the office with her are also looking for more names.

    1 – She yelled she had more names.
    2 – She yelled THAT she had more names.

  3. I am often guilty of overusing that but I have finally gotten to the point of recognizing it. Now to recognize the other two thousand words I over use (‘just’ comes to mind, grr.)

  4. I’ve had to ‘that argument’ a thousand times in critique group. I just can’t get that across *smile*

    Oh…a much better way of finding your over-used/favorite words…investigate first via the Wordle diagram….then use a highlighting edit macro…one word at a time. Amazing how you can cull the repeaters.

    A long painful process…but it can take a 102kw ms to 98k. I cross my heart.

    I guarantee it!!

    – Mac

  5. I don’t mean to nitpick, but “took a step” seems to be a different action than “stepped.” I feel like the latter can mean more than one step; also, what if “took a step” helps your sentence flow more smoothly?

    Sorry; I’m always leery of those bits of advice that begin with “always” or “never.” Not that I never think they’re right, I just don’t always think so.


  6. Ah yes… I remember several years ago when I submitted a manuscript to a critiquing service. Eliminate THAT wherever possible was the first comment

  7. I’ve wondered about “that!” Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

  8. @Christopher: This is one the easiest ways I know to lower word counts!

    @Paul: Technically, neither is incorrect, since both make sense. However, the “that” conjunction simply isn’t needed. The sentence is clear without it and reads more smoothly without the added baggage.

    @mshatch: The nonsense word trick works just as well for other needless fillers. If you have more than one you’re hunting for at a time, you can replace the word with all caps (e.g., “JUST” for “just”), so you can easily tell them apart.

    @Mac: I love Wordle! It’s not just useful, but also cool.

    @Daniel: This definitely isn’t an always/never rule (and I agree with you on having good reason to be leery of those). Sometimes “took a step” is better, but I’d estimate that fifty percent of the time “stepped” works better with fewer words – which is (almost 😉 always a good thing.

    @Tracy: It’s such “duh” moment (or at lest it was for me), but, luckily, something “that” is very easy to remove once you’re aware of it.

    @Summer: Thanks for reading!

  9. Yes, the find/replace tool is a life saver! I’ve used it for ‘that’ before.
    I’ve Also used it when I notice common mistakes I do. ex: When I’m in a hurry, my brain goes on auto pilot. I’ll type ‘there’ instead of ‘their’.

  10. My brain is *terrible* at typing the wrong homophone – or even words that are only vaguely related, like “barn” and “barge.” I go back to proofread, and it’s like, “Gah!”

  11. I was unaware of my bloat until my editor for The Red Fury told me she was on a personal mission to eradicate “that” from the English language. Okay… maybe she took it a bit far. But really. What an eye-opener. The eradication in in my novel turned me into a weaning infant, writerly speaking.

  12. Isn’t it weird how, once someone brings your attention to something like this, you see it EVERYWHERE?

  13. I use the word that WAY too much:( Thanks for this post…I’ll need to edit those words out:)

  14. “That” is often ridiculously prevalent in our work, but the good news is it’s easy to eradicate once we’re aware of it.

  15. “Blame it on Brohaugh.” 😀

    Great tip on how to catch it, though. I have my own pet word–“just”–which will now become “phlibber.” Bet I don’t miss it anymore!

  16. “Phlibber” – love it!

  17. Interesting. My MS Word grammar checker sometimes has a meltdown if I eliminate “that”.

  18. I love your Boomber trick! I might try “that” myself!

  19. Ah..that pesky “that.” I search for that as well as “which” and “as” when finishing up edits. Good idea replacing it with another word.

  20. @Lorna: Seriously? Must be gremlins.

    @Julie: I picked up that word from “Howie,” my computer’s read-aloud voice. He randomly sticks “Boomber” into his narration – with some pretty funny results.

    @Traci: So many words to cull – it’s a wonder we have any left!

  21. I have an editing notebook. In it I have the collected wisdom of blogs, books etc on how to edit and also a list of my repeat words to prune. These are; just, realised, decided, wondered, noticed and maybe. I think I am not that bad on that but I will add that to that list so that I can edit that out in case I use that too often in a sentence. Thanks 🙂

  22. “Just” is a good one too cull as well. I got called on the carpet for that one too, a long time ago, by a writing instructor.

  23. Ever since I learned how superfluous the word “that” is, it catches my attention each time I come across it, and I have to delete or replace that with something else where ever possible. The double that is a particularly annoying, and useless, construction.

  24. Totally agree. Once you’re aware of “that,” it becomes relatively easy to recognize and obliterate.

  25. Michelle says

    So, another new lesson learned. Thank you. I have roughly 148 pages written so far in my primary work and I found over five hundred uses of ‘that’ in it. A quick read through, I couldn’t help myself, eliminated almost half of them. I’m sure when the time comes to do serious editing I’ll find more.

  26. Michelle says

    So, another new lesson learned. Thank you. I have roughly 148 pages written so far in my primary work and I found over five hundred uses of ‘that’ in it. A quick read through, I couldn’t help myself, eliminated almost half of them. I’m sure when the time comes to do serious editing I’ll find more.

  27. Once I am finished with my MS i will go through and highlight all the -ing and -ly’s to ensure I’m not over using them. Looks like I have a few others to add to the list though!

  28. KM – is it too much (or acceptable) to replace “that” with “it?”

  29. @Michelle: Awesome! Weeding through 500 thats shows a commendable amount of commitment. I admit I blanched when I first ran that search in my doc.

    @Lisa: Another great practice, since adverbs and participles can easily get a workout.

    @Dawn: It would depend on the sentence, but generally, they’re not going to be interchangeable – and if they are (in instances of “that” as a pronoun), you will run the risk of changing the sentence’s meaning.

  30. I generally take each sentence *that* (:P) I’ve written, and dissect it piece by piece.. I’m both a grammar and a spelling nazi, so most errors are quickly spotted and corrected. Afterwards, I do a quick read-through to find context errors…
    Haven’t had any complaints about serious grammatical errors, so I figure *that* I’m getting at least 95% of them…

    (it is so fun to put *that* where it’s not needed.. 😉 )

  31. That is such a true statement that I think I need to try it out myself and see that I have some fun myself!

  32. Also bear in mind that the use of “that” differs depending on whether you write American or British English. British uses “that” less often: some of the American uses of “that” are “which” or “who/whom” in British.

  33. Yes, as if English wasn’t confusing enough, everything changes in different countries! “Which” and “whom/whom” are both more specific choices than “that” and will often be preferable, even in American usage.

  34. I so loved what she had to say. I agree. It drives me insane ‘that’ some people think ‘that’ they must use ‘that’ word ‘that’ everywhere ‘that’ they can find ‘that’ spot for it.

  35. This is one of those thing we don’t often realize we’re doing. We type it because it’s the way we speak, and we don’t even notice the superfluity until someone points it out to us.

  36. Hi – I just blogged about this the other day (16 words that try to but in and ruin my writing), plus a load more words that intrude and are unnecessary. Someone commented they were Weasel Words – words that weaken our writing and some words that mess it up altogether.

    These are my 16 most hated:

    Stuff (this is my worst offender and never necessary)
    Feel (sometimes not necessary)
    About (qualifying)
    Like (as when we’re speaking, not necessary)
    That (unnecessary in most places)
    Any more bugging you, apart from ‘that’?

  37. Great list! “Just” is one I got smacked for early in my career. I still see it crop up every now and then.

  38. A filler which annoys me is “going to” (or its not-yet-approved abbreviated form, “gonna”). Fine in dialog, but it should never be used otherwise. Yet I hear it often.

    If the speaker intends future tense, use “will” or “shall”. However, people use it totally devoid of meaning and it should just be omitted.

    Some great examples in this thread of filler words we need to become aware of and eliminate from our writing and speech. “That” and “just” are very easy to insert into our text; be aware of them. I am also guilty of beginning a sentence with a coordinate conjunction (“and”, “but”, “or”, …) and must rewrite sentences when I do. Coordinate conjunctions should conjoin independent clauses into a compound sentence — any other usage may be erroneous.

    Try to be aware of inserted fillers and remove them, both when you speak and write. If anyone wishes me to steer them to a NPO dedicated to improving speech, I shall be happy to do so.

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