How do you get better at a task, especially a difficult one?

You practice it. You think about it. You listen to people talk about it.

I play a lot of video games, and to get better, I practice. I listen to people talk about them. Every time I die, I think about why I died and what I can do differently next time.

This leads to me leveling up, both in game and out, and I get better. My character gets more gold, so I can buy better items. I gain access to more powerful abilities. I improve.

Writing is a difficult task. How do you get better at it? Just like a video game, you practice. You spend time, countless hours in some cases, grinding to get the next bit of experience to level up, so you can use that better gear, those more powerful abilities.

I’ve been writing for a long time at this point, and along the way, I’ve picked up a thing or two about how to write. I have some decent gear and one or two good skills.

Here, I’m going to pass on two suggestions to you, so you can employ them in your own writing. Think of them as side quests if you want, something to pursue in your free time to get a spare bit of experience.

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Suggestion one: Watch for the word “that.”

The word “that” has a specific function. Oddly, and I’ll blame colloquial speech mannerisms for this, it has crept into our writing in cases where we don’t need it.

The word “that” acts as a relative pronoun and forms restrictive clauses. Now, you really don’t need to know what either of those phrases mean, as long as you understand this: “That” will set off information critical to understanding the sentence.

If the “that” is providing necessary definition, you need the “that.” If not, you don’t. Here’s an example:

For me, the hardest part of “Dark Souls III” was where that asshole Pontiff Sulyvahn comes in and wrecks shop.

To understand the sentence, we need to know how much of an asshole Pontiff Sulyvahn really is. I can word the sentence without “that asshole,” but it loses some impact if I do. Let’s try for a better example.

If you get that sword, we can burn this boss faster.

This sentence has a better example of necessary definition. Which sword do we need? That sword. One specific one, lying right there.

Sometimes, though, the word “that” sneaks in when we don’t need it.

The last boss that we fought really kicked my ass.
The last boss we fought really kicked my ass.

Does the second one mean the same thing as the first one? Yes. Watch for cases like the one above, where both cases read the same and the second saves you a word.

Suggestion two: Watch for “state of being” verbs

The “state of being” verbs pervade our speech and writing, largely because they are easy to use and don’t really say anything. I just used one in the preceding sentence: are.

These verbs are (there again) is, am, are, was, were, be, been, being (shall and will can count, too).

I think the best way to explain this uses a little humor. If I tell you “I was at the store yesterday,” what did I just tell you?

I existed at the store? Presumably, I bought things, but who really knows?

These verbs act as a crutch a lot of the time. Using them makes it easy to get a subject and a verb together with a thought, package it as a sentence and send it on its way.

I bought a vorpal sword at the store the other day. There. Instead of “was-ing,” I did something. It’s a magical store; I’ve got to keep the video game analogy going.

Now, most of the time, it’s going to be a lot harder to replace one of these with an action because we get so used to using them. If you can, associate an action with your subject instead, like I did above.

Now, for those of you sharp-eyed readers out there, I did use a “was” in my first example sentence in the previous section. I could change my sentence to remove it:

That asshole Pontiff Sulyvahn killed me more than any other boss in “Dark Souls III.”

This second sentence probably reads stronger than the first, which acts as a good example of how this second tip takes a lot of work. Even when I’m looking for chances to omit these verbs, I miss some or leave some in because it can be really difficult to take them out. Just give it a shot; see if you like it.

Do what you can with these side quests. Here’s hoping you can arm yourself with a new weapon or use a new skill because of the experience.

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