Friday, April 29, 2016

Define IT

A popular post from June 2010

by Annette Lyon

I didn't realize until I kept seeing the same thing cross my desk (or, um, monitor) literally dozens of times that one very common way of telling is often overlooked.

Here's the awesome news: this kind of telling is really easy to change into showing. (Easy is the kind of fix we all like, right?)

So what's the weak telling I'm talking about?

When the words THAT and IT are too vague.

Most of the time, sure, the reader will technically know what you're referring to, but if you'd just define IT or THAT, you'd be showing us rather than telling.

For example, you write:

I knew THAT hurt him.
Okay, so chances are we know, thanks to context, what THAT refers to. But what if you were to be more specific? Can you SHOW us?
Switch out THAT with what it refers to:
I knew my words hurt him.
Zing! So much more powerful.

Let's try another:
IT felt like family.
WHAT felt like family? Show us by defining IT:
Being with them felt like family.
Dinner that night felt like family.

And one more:
IT would make things easier.
WHAT would make things easier? Define IT:
Breaking off their relationship now would make things easier.

Simple yet so effective.
In rough drafts, most of us add those extra words without giving the issue much thought. No problem. But when you're going through revisions, try this: search for THIS, IT, and even THAT.
Not every instance will fall under this category, but of those that do, see how many you can replace with showing details. Be specific.
You don't want to get wordy, so there may be places where IT and THAT fit better.
But don't assume as much. Look at each case to see if defining those words with detail makes for a stronger sentence.
Trust me; it can pack a huge punch.
Wait. Try that again: Trust me; defining IT and THAT can pack a huge punch.
Yep. Much better.


One Cluttered Brain said...

Thanks for the tip!
So enlightening.

Anonymous said...

Great tip! Thanks.

I try to name/define IT or THAT one time in a paragraph at the beginning (and again if the paragraph gets complicated) before I start referring to the named/defined thing as IT or THAT.

In a previous critique, I realized that I had the idea in my own head but hadn't defined IT. That critique was a huge wake-up call.

This reminds me of dialogue tags. The reader needs to know who is talking.

Amy said...

Always helpful!!! Thanks so much.

Kimberly said...

I love tips like these that make my eyes widen slightly and then bring on a grin. Epiphanies are so fabulous, and how often you bless us with them! Thanks for the insight!

Carolyn V. said...

Hey, you're right. They are too vague. You always have such great advice Annette! =)

Melanie J said...

Oooh, I like that tip. I'm going to pay attention to that now!

Anonymous said...

That is a wonderful tip. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Wow, THAT totally helped. :)

You're amazing!

Heather B. Moore said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Amber Lynae said...

Annette, you are always full of advice that I need to hear. I'm not sure if that makes me really dense or you brilliant. I'm going to go with you being brilliant.


Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

Trainer Momma said...

I appreciate this tip immensely. I'll be searching for those words and changing them!