Writing tip and the case of “IT”: avoid sloppy writing

(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.)

1234386_notebook_and_netbookI will never, ever forget one of the best courses I took in college. It was a senior seminar entirely devoted to Arthurian legend.

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.

you must bring us... a shrubbery. (Or conversely, cut down the largest tree in the forest with.... A HERRING!)

you must bring us… a shrubbery. (Or conversely, cut down the largest tree in the forest with…. A HERRING!)

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.

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67 responses to “Writing tip and the case of “IT”: avoid sloppy writing

  1. This is a great tip, Victoria and something I will definitely try to bear in mind during the edit. Thanks.

    • you’re welcome. it’s a simple, solid tactic to improve writing and how it flows that i know I would never have picked up on my own. Glad I had that prof!!! She was fantastic.

  2. angel7090695001

    Great tip. I can see the improvement in writing if I implement this tip.

  3. I have to say I was immediately resistant to the idea that ‘it’ was not completely acceptable in the example sentences. After reading the followup examples, however, I changed my mind. I did see the difference taking out it and putting words with meaning had on the effectiveness of the sentence. Will definitely be using this tid bit of information from now on.

    • yea! πŸ™‚ It’s not that “it” is wrong in the first examples. Grammatically it’s fine, and many people write that way and especially talk that way. But for writing it’s sometimes not the strongest way to structure a sentence.

  4. Now, I’m going to be checking that I don’t overuse ‘it’. Thanks for the advice.

  5. I’ve heard of getting rid of was, but not it. But it makes sense.

    Question though, in your first example, you changed the sentence with it in it into questions. How do you feel about using this sort of question in novels? I replaced quite a few ‘was’ sentences with questions, and my editor wanted to rephrase them so they weren’t questions.

    • I think questions can be overdone if they’re used too often. But I’m like you: I like to use them! I think a short series of questions every now and then can really drive a point or an emotion home. It’s a matter of preference and style, I’d say.

  6. Reblogged this on Adventures in Fantasy and commented:
    This is a post from Victoria Grefer. I had never thought about “it” being a problem, maybe none of you have ever!

  7. HI Victoria-
    I’ve been pained by IT for many years and seethed when my students (I taught Geology) used IT to begin sentences.

    I’ve had to come back from the other extreme–sometimes it’s just cumbersome to NOT used ‘it’. In that case–and there are indeed few–use IT and rock on down the road.

    thanks for the piece! I enjoy your blogs…..
    mary

    • thanks Mary!!! I totally agree with you that balance is the key, and when it simple feels convoluted to go out of your way to avoid “it”, sometimes it’s better just to use it! fantastic point.

  8. Great blog post. Overusing ‘it’ really makes a difference in someone’s writing. I’m going to be even more conscious of word usage now. I feel the same way about ‘only’ ‘like’ and ‘just.’

  9. If I had a dollar for every time I noted “what is ‘it’?” when I edit, I’d be wealthy! Great post, and as Natasha mentioned, that is one of several words we should all search when self editing.

  10. This is a great post! This is a problem I have too. I didn’t realize that it was a problem until I joined this group for Aspiring Authors on LinkedIn. The thread I am referring to is passive voice vs. active voice. I didn’t realize the difference and this thread really opened my eyes. I really love to follow some on these threads because the experienced authors give great advice and are so willing to help a newbie. πŸ™‚ It, as you are referring here, without an object is very passive. I do it all the time. I’ve tried to correct myself here on this post as a matter of fact. Another problem I have, is contractions. I don’t use them a lot. I tend to write out the words, i.e. I will rather than I’ll. I am trying to use them more, especially in dialogue because I don’t want it to appear stilted. It was suggested to me to read it aloud and see how it sounds and if it sounds too formal then I’d know where to correct it. Of course, this is a whole other post, isn’t it? lol Thanks again, I look forward to your posts, they have helped me a lot!

    • contractions are indeed another post! that’s a great idea I might have to add to the back burner. you’re so right to say they’re good in dialogue, because that’s how people talk. And reading dialogue out loud is a GREAT tip, Rebecca, for anyone πŸ™‚

  11. Great advice! I too have been waging my own war against “it.”

  12. Pingback: When Adverbs Attack: Why “just,” “only,” and “simply” can be a writer’s nightmare | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  13. angel7090695001

    True, will have to check my writing. I think I have done this.

  14. Very good point, I mentioned this in a post, When editing gets away from you. I used humor to illustrate it this way, “Often when I look back it is not clear what the pronoun refers too. If it’s not clear what it refers back to, spell it out rather than using it (the pronoun).”

  15. I’m going to fly you in to talk to my comp students–maybe they’ll listen to you!

  16. Pingback: Creative Writing Tip: When “To Be” Becomes An Enemy | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  17. Pingback: Authors, Bloggers, Wordsmiths: Did you know “there is” a way to avoid weakening your writing? | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  18. Very good pointer – thank you.

    Watch out “its” – get yourself an antecedent for here I come πŸ™‚

  19. Wow! Thank you so much for sharing. Little pointers like this one are so helpful when trying to turn out good work. I will certainly be applying this tip tomorrow (too late tonite – my bed beckons). πŸ™‚

    Grace and peace to you and yours
    – Tami
    \o/

  20. floridaborne

    That might save my eardrums from my sister screaming with the pain of “it” every time I write “it’s” when I should be writing “its.” πŸ™‚

  21. Wonderful tip! I’m putting it in my list of words to scan for so I can also reword. πŸ™‚

  22. Thanks for the great tip (and the examples). I’m new to writing and “it avoidance” is a new one for me. Makes perfect sense though. Will do a search of my last short story and see how many “its” need changing – smile. Look forward to reading more of your tips and insights (am now following your blog). Cheers!

    • thanks so much for following, Diane, and for taking the time to introduce yourself. I hope my blog becomes a resource for you!!! It’s definitely geared for those new to writing, so I hope you can find some helpful information here!

  23. Pingback: Writing tip and the case of “IT”: avoid sloppy writing | Glitter Writer

  24. Pingback: The Case for avoiding ” IT” in your Writing | Glitter Writer

  25. I nominated you for the Liebster Award! You can find the details in this post: http://writecity.wordpress.com/2013/06/10/liebster-award/

  26. Pingback: Writing tip and the case of “IT”: avoid sloppy writing | rememberingwonderland

  27. Love your tip! I never thought one little word could ruin a potentially great sentence.

  28. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.” A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens.

    Oh well, I suppose we can’t all be great writers πŸ™‚

    • hahahahahaha!!!!!!!!!! SOOOOOO true πŸ˜› Dickens is just…. the masters have a way of breaking all the rules in all the right ways.

      • Seriously Victoria, I found your article VERY useful. I immediately reviewed a story I was writing for instances of “it” without antecedent and rewrote them (hopefully) to better effect. So thank you. I hope you keep the tips coming. πŸ™‚

  29. Pingback: Writing tip and the case of “IT”: avoid sloppy writing | Daphodill's Garden

  30. Reblogged this on The Pelican Writer and commented:
    Really helpful tip for writing and editing. I’m definitely going to sift through my draft with this in mind.

  31. Pingback: Friday's Favorite Five - Links to Writing Advice | American Gypsy Gibberish...

  32. This blog really made me aware of writing mistakes I make at times. And I have used the two letter word to often.

  33. Wow! This tip is amazing! What a difference! Definitely a new writing challenge I shall be keeping in mind!

  34. Pingback: How a Focused, Limited “Baby Edit” Can Help Improve A Writer’s Style | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

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