That, had, was -ing!


I just finished my fifth and latest draft of Project Stripes, the novella I’m working on, and in the process, I’ve been inspired to write this post.

When transferring my edits from the hard copy to the digital one, I noticed how frequently I deleted filler verbs such as “that,” “had,” and the combination of “was + ing” words. During the actual act of editing and re-reading of my manuscript, I never noticed this cutting as a conscious effort to seek clarity and easier word flow. I just did it because it sounded better.

Instances when “that,” “had,” and “was + ings” are not necessary:

The sun had risen, casting deep cuts of shadows along the contours of the mountains and the tops of coniferous trees.

The sun rose and was casting shadows that had cut along the contours of the mountains and tops of the coniferous trees.

The sun had risen and  shadows were cast that cut along the contours of the mountains and the tops of the coniferous trees.

These instances are perfectly fine in their own right; however, they do seem to be a little wordy for my taste as someone who was taught to be as precise and conservative with my prose when possible. Verbs like “rose,” “cast,” and “cut” work perfectly well independent of “that,” “had,” and “was + ing.” You don’t really need these verb assistants to get across what you’re trying to say.

Now this all depends on the POV (point of view) from which your story is told and the tense. These examples are all written in past tense. Making a story in present brews up a whole different concoction of challenges for the Grammarnazi. Here is a corrected, more powerful and smoother read of the sentence:

The sun rose, cutting shadows along the contours of the mountains and tops of the coniferous trees.

There are such instances; however, where you will find these words work perfectly well within the context of what you are saying. I would advise you to limit your uses of “that,” “had,” and “was + ing,” only to show how you don’t need filler verbs to dam the flow of your words. Other verb assistants include: “could/would/should + have,” “are + ing (for present),” “is + ing (for present),” and “were + ing/ed.”

If you want to widdle down your word count one small red strike-out at a time, try targeting these words while going from draft to draft. Sometimes these words can slip by you without your notice, so be vigilant. If you see a sentence that says “Marty and Tim were eating while in hyperspace,” maybe you should think about shortening it down to just “Marty and Tim ate while in hyperspace.” Now doesn’t that sound better? Doing this can leave you with a clean and pristine work of art worthy of publication. But use caution; sometimes they’re needed.


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