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Writing Quick Tip: that v. which

Determining whether to use “that” or “which” in a sentence can be a challenge. Sometimes, it’s obvious…

If you’re discussing what option to pick from among multiple options, “which” is correct.

Ex: “Which hat should I buy?”

If you’re indicating/identifying a specific, finite object, “that” is correct.

Ex: “I will buy that hat.”

However, it can appear more confusing if the sentence is more complex, or phrased unusually. But, it’s not actually more confusing – there’s a quick, easy rule to help determine when to use which option (use “which” there because we’re talking about multiple options!). In complex sentences, that/which usually are used with clauses. If you can remove the clause without altering the meaning or reducing the clarity of the sentence, then “which” is probably correct; otherwise, “that” is probably correct.

Ex. 1: “I will buy the hat that is green.”

Explanation: this sentence specifies, with a clause, that I am specifically buying the green hat. If that aspect of the sentence is removed, then necessary information is lacking (the person I’m speaking to will no longer know which hat I mean!). Grammatically, this is called a defining (or restrictive) clause – it’s a clause that defines the thing being described, and marks it as “this specific thing (as opposed to any other thing).”

Ex. 2: “I bought the hat, which is green, to wear to school.”

Explanation: the clause is an interjection which is not necessary to convey meaning, it simply add flavor. If it’s removed, the essential point of the sentence (that the hat was purchased to wear at school) remains. Grammatically, this is called a non-defining (or nonrestrictive) clause – a clause that isn’t necessary to define the thing, and when removed won’t have a major impact on the reader’s ability to know which thing is being described – “I’m interacting with this thing (and, coincidentally, this thing has this trait).”

So, just remember: if the clause is essential to conveying the full meaning of the sentence, use “that.” If the clause can be removed without impacting the sentence’s meaning, use “which.”

Have a writing or grammar question? Feel free to drop us an ask any time!

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Ten Quick Tips to Help Writers Edit Their Own Work

Learning to edit your own writing effectively and thoroughly is a difficult skill to learn. It can be especially hard to spot small errors when you, as the author, know what you meant to say – your eye will often gloss over what your document actually says. To learn to edit your work well requires practice and careful reading of work you admire and want to emulate – we could give advice on how to do that level, certainly, but no amount of advice will negate the need to work at it until you get the hang of it and experiment with different strategies until you find one that works for you. However, spotting small errors that are easy to overlook in your own work is a much more solvable problem. Here’s some suggestions to help you look at familiar words with fresh eyes!

  1. Write a first draft in a font you’re comfortable with (most of us here at DPP use either Times New Roman or Arial), and then when it’s time to edit, switch to a radically different font – like Comic Sans, or, if you struggle with sans serif fonts, Courier.
  2. Change the background color of your document. Do you usually write in day mode? Try editing in night mode! Do you usually write with a colored background to reduce eye strain? Try a different color, or white!
  3. Change the font color in your document. If you default to writing in black, try red, or, if doing this in tandem with a background color change, try switching the font color to one that looks just awful with your chosen background color.
  4. Change the font size in your document. This can be especially helpful because it’ll radically change where in any given line your words fall – it’s often harder to spot issues at the very end of lines, because our brain fills in the end when we move to the next line, so adjusting where things fall on the page can help.
  5. Switch what medium you’re working in – if you typed your first draft, print it out or re-write it by hand. If you hand wrote your first draft, edit it as you type it up!
  6. Read it out loud. Yes, the whole thing. Yes, every single word. This will help spot typos, missing words, weird commas, etc., and can also help identify sentences that are off, repetitive, or otherwise wonky.
  7. Alternatively, find someone else to read it outloud to you! You can take notes and make changes as you listen to them.
  8. If you use an outline, go back and compare your draft to the outline. This can help make sure you didn’t miss anything, and also doing a side-by-side reading can help find small things.
  9. Change the characters names using a simple find-and-replace, it can help it feel like you’re reading something different.
  10. Put it aside for a few weeks and work on other things, then come back and read it through straight, making no changes – read it like you’re a reader, rather than reading it like you’re the author, and try to spot what you may have left out or been unclear about.

Getting a story “clean” from a SPAG (spelling and grammar) point of view is hard, and even for an experienced copyeditor, it usually takes multiple read-throughs. If you’ve found it’s something you struggle with, one of the perks of the above suggestions is that nearly all can be tried with minimal effort – you’ll quickly be able to tell whether, for example, changing the font helps you or not. If it does help – great, you’ve found a new tool to help you edit! If it doesn’t help – there’s plenty more things on the list for you to try!

Do y’all have any different tricks you use to help you edit? Let us know, we’d love to expand our list!

@licieoic and @nottesilhouette (on Tumblr) contributed ideas to this list.

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Writing Quick Tips: Apostrophes

A little thing that trips up a lot of writers is apostrophes, especially for the few words that don’t quite work the way apostrophes most commonly work in English. This post will talk about a handful of the most commonly mixed up ones: its/it’s, theirs/there’s, their/there/they’re, and whose/who’s. While there is a world of advice out there on how to learn the rules, I personally have found all those explanations do little when I’m writing and confused. Even after writing over 4 million words of fiction, I still mix them up sometimes, and when I do, I don’t look up definitions, I don’t ask for help, and I don’t think about parts of speech or anything. 

What do I do?

I replace the contraction (or, potentially, not-contraction) with the full, un-contracted version and see if the sentence makes sense.


For its and it’s:

It’s either means “it is” or “it has.” If you swap those in for “i-t-s” and you get a coherent sentence, then you need an apostrophe; otherwise, you don’t.

Examples:

“Momentum meant it continued in its established path” would become “Momentum meant it continued in it is (or has) established path” – a sentence that makes no sense, so no apostrophe needed.

vs.

“That belongs to me – it’s mine!” would become “That belongs to me – it is mine!” – a sentence that makes sense, so you need the apostrophe.

vs.

“It’s been a long day” would become “It has been a long day” – a sentence that makes sense, so you need the apostrophe.


For theirs and there’s:

There’s either means “there is” or “there has.” If you swap those in for “t-h-e-i-r-s” or “t-h-e-r-e-s” and you get a coherent sentence, then you need an apostrophe; otherwise, you don’t.

Examples:

“After placing the high bid, the house was theirs to decorate as they’d like” would become “After placing the high bid, the house was they is to decorate as they’d like” – a sentence that makes no sense, so no apostrophe is needed! Further, “theres” isn’t a word, so if there’s no apostrophe, you automatically need to use “theirs,” not “theres.”

vs.

“There’s no easy way to solve this problem” would become “There is no easy way to solve this problem” – a sentence that makes sense, so you need an apostrophe! Further, likewise, “their’s” isn’t a word, so if there’s an apostrophe, you automatically need to use “there’s,” not “their’s.”

vs. 

“There’s been a dramatic increase in the number of battles recently” would become “There has been a dramatic increase in the number of battles recently” – a sentence that makes sense, so you need an apostrophe, and again, ‘their’s’ isn’t a word, so if you need an apostrophe, then you want “there,” not “their.”


For (their or there) and they’re:

They’re means “they are.” If you swap that in for “t-h-e-i-r” or “t-h-e-r-e” or “t-h-e-y’r-e” and you get a coherent sentence, then you need an apostrophe; otherwise, you don’t need “they’re,” you need either “their” or “there.”

Examples:

“Their favorite food was pizza” and “Over there is our destination” would become “The(ir) are favorite food was pizza” and “Over the(re) are is our destination” – definitely two sentences that make no sense, so it’s their/there, not they’re.

vs.

“They’re my best friends” would become “They are my best friend” – a sentence that makes sense, so you need an apostrophe, and “they’re” is correct automatically, since “their’re” and “there’re” are not words.


For whose and who’s:

Who’s either means “who is” or “who has.” If you swap those in for “w-h-o-s-e” or “w-h-o’s” and you get a coherent sentence, then you need an apostrophe; otherwise, you don’t.

Examples:

“I found this hat, do you know whose it is?” would become “I found this hat, do you know who is it is?” – a sentence that makes no sense, so no apostrophe needed!

vs.

“Who’s going to the show tonight?” would become “Who is going to the show tonight” – a sentence that makes sense, so you need an apostrophe.

vs.

“Who’s got the pencil – please pass it to me!” would become “Who has the pencil – please pass it to me!” – a sentence that makes sense, so you need an apostrophe.


This is likely self-evident to some writers, but personally? I wish someone had told me it was this easy to figure out when I was a less experienced writer and confused. When I’m writing quickly, if I want to check if I’ve picked the correct one, I literally just try both options in my head “okay, if I do ‘it is,’ does this sentence make sense? Yes? I need ‘it’s!’ No? I need ‘its.’” It’s a simple writing fix for a really common problem, without having to learn and memorize the rules and figure out how they apply in different circumstances, and I’ve never had it steer me wrong! And that doesn’t mean the rules aren’t worth learning – but often we as writers know the rules, it’s applying them that’s a challenge, and this is a tip that’s helped me apply them.

I hope it helps all of you as much as it’s helped me!