(ADDED NOTE: Yesterday, a tragic event unfolded in Boston, Massachusetts, where bombs went off during the annual Boston marathon. Please, if you are praying person, pray for those injured and killed, for their family and friends, and for the community there.)
One day in class, we got to talking about writing and what makes good writing, because the professor would always mark up the responses we had to turn in: reflections on the weekly readings. She gave us one of the best tips I have ever heard about what makes “lazy writing.”
It all has to do with “it.”
Yep. That little word of two-letters. The terror of the Knights who say “Ni.” The shortcut we all use in conversation every day–and in our writing–to avoid being direct and explicit.
We often use “it” as a pronoun that takes the place of, and refers back to, a clear antecedent, and that’s fine. For instance:
- She couldn’t find the key; she couldn’t remember where she’d left it. (it being the key)
- I love her chocolate cake. It’s always so moist! (it being the cake)
When we DON’T have an antecedent for “it” is when things turn sloppy.Here are some examples of what I mean:
- It was hard to tell who the culprit might be.
- It’s dangerous to go walking alone after dark in that neighborhood.
- It was all so horrible she had to shut her eyes.
Grammatically, the sentences hold up, and such structure is fine upon occasion for an informal piece, like a blog post. In my fiction, though, I strive to reword such sentences. Look how much more of punch they wield without that “it” that doesn’t really refer to anything:
- Who might the culprit be? No one could say. (Note the heightened tension.) You could also write: No one could say who the culprit might be.
- In that neighborhood, walking alone after dark was never a good idea. (Note the emphasis on the geography, on the setting.)
- The horror made her squeeze her eyes shut. (What a brisker pace! That works so much better for scenes of action, moments of movement, passages when your characters are pumped with adrenaline.)
I was blown away by how much avoiding that use of “it” changed my writing for the better. I took the lesson really to heart, and I still abide by it where my fiction goes.
Hopefully now, you can understand the value of editing out a proliferation of “it” in your formal prose. If you like, I encourage you to practice eliminating such usage in your future blog posts, to break the habit of writing that way in the first place. I plan to do that myself. My writing and yours will improve drastically for our efforts. Sometimes, the tiny things add up to make all the difference in the world.