The advice was confusing at first.

A man on a bicycle pointing to a street sign that reads, "Follow that dream."

“‘That’ is a stutter word for writers,” my journalism professor said, handing me a piece I’d written for his class. On the paper were lines of red ink crossing out a few “thats.”

I didn’t understand. If “that” is a word, how could it be unnecessary to a sentence? And how can you write without using “that?”

But my professor told me to do two things when I include a “that” in a sentence: Reread the sentence by leaving out “that.” And if the sentence makes sense without “that,” remove it from the sentence.

Still skeptical, I reread the piece my professor had edited, this time leaving out the “thats.” Sure enough, every sentence in which my teacher had crossed out a “that” still made sense without its “that.”

It was as if my eyes were open to a new dimension. Every time I reread something I wrote, I saw glaring back at me in neon colors unnecessary “thats.”

I still follow the writing advice my professor gave me almost 20 years ago. It’s easy to follow. And by leaving out a “that” I’m able to write sharper, crisper copy for my readers.

Using the That Test

You, too, can follow his guidance about “thats.” Use the That Test. Here’s how:

  1. Read a sentence you wrote that includes a “that.”
  2. If the sentence can still convey its meaning to the reader without including “that,” you can delete the “that.”

Let’s look at an example. This sentence has a “that”: Someone at work said that they liked my hair today.

This sentence does not have a “that”: Someone at work said they liked my hair today.

The sentence still works without the “that,” right? In other words, the reader can understand what the sentence is saying without the “that.” Because of this, the “that” is unnecessary, and we can delete it from this sentence.

The importance of removing ‘thats’

Why should you remove unnecessary that’s from your writing? The main reason is people lose interest while reading.

There’s always something else to read or a social media feed to check. Every nano-second of a reader’s time is an opportunity for that person to move on from your work. The quicker your copy reads, the less likely a reader is to lose interest in your writing.

So, when writing, follow the That Test and remove unnecessary “thats” from your writing. And enjoy having more people read your work from beginning to end.


This article originally appeared on Medium on Oct. 31, 2019.