Two Questions to Immediately Improve Your Writing

In college, I learned the two questions to ask to immediately improve your writing.

pic from flikr

pic from flikr

I was taking a class on “Russian literature and film in the twentieth century.” On one of my first papers, the professor had circled almost every use of the word “that” and written “who.” There were a number of other uses of that which had just been crossed out entirely. Suddenly a lightbulb went on in my head and I saw what she was trying to get me to do. Those changes immediately made my writing better and they can work for you, as well.

First, the “that” vs “who” change. Once I learned this one, I’ve seen the mistake everywhere. Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and even published books. Here’s how my professor explained it:
Use “who” for people, use “that” for everything else.
She was talking about a sentence’s direct object.

Example: He is the one that loved her.
It should be: He is the one who loved her.

It’s about the direct object and which word you should use to refer to it. Since “the one” refers back to “he,” and “he” is a person, use “who.”

Example: I love authors that use diverse characters.
It should be: I love authors who use diverse characters.
Again, though some would disagree, authors are people.

In cases where the direct object isn’t a person, that is correct.
Example: There are a number of toys that are needlessly sexist.
While sad, this sentence is grammatically correct.

The second piece of advice she gave me was the use of the word that as useless filler. Example? Before this professor, I would have written the sentence as The second piece of advice that she gave me was….

As writers, we want an economy of words. Just as most of us wouldn’t even think about writing The male boy was tall, we shouldn’t use any other unneeded word. And that is almost always useless.

I was thinking that orange really is the new black.
I was thinking orange really is the new black.

There are things that I’m doing to improve my relationships.
There are things I’m doing to improve my relationships.

This isn’t a matter of the word being “wrong;” it just isn’t needed. As writers, we want the words we choose to have meaning. You wouldn’t say rainy if you meant stormy. While similar, those words mean different things, and a good writer would want to use the one that means exactly what he or she wants to convey. And most of the time that doesn’t have meaning.

Ever since my professor pointed those things out to me, I’ve always questioned using that in a sentence. Sure, usually I don’t catch it until I’m revising, but that’s fine. As long as at some point I ask, “Can this word be changed to who? Can this word be removed without changing the sentence?”

 If you ask yourself these questions, too, you can easily improve your writing with little effort.


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