Stop Using the Word "It"

Stop Using the Word “It”

It’s absurd to tell you to stop using a pronoun, especially one that’s so ingrained into our language, most writers don’t even realize when they use it. It is a useful word, standing in for long referents, keeping you from awkwardly repeating yourself, introducing Mario. But it is also a crutch. Nothing will weaken your writing quite as quickly as relying on it

Whether this reliance comes through using the same pronoun with different referents, rendering your writing confusing, or through an overabundance of passive sentence constructions, it is a curse many writers don’t even realize is on their writing. 

Look at it this way. Writing a paragraph is like blowing up a balloon. Each sentence builds on the last, blowing the balloon a little bigger. Some sentences are small breaths, not accomplishing much, but doing something nonetheless. Like this. Some sentences are long, deep breaths—they add life, vigor, music to your paragraphs, dropping truth bombs or creating a charismatic orchestration of meaning and sound. Then the last sentence, or the pause that follows, neatly ties it off. 

The strongest sentences can even be their own paragraph, blowing up the balloon in one breath. 

At the end of your piece, all the paragraph balloons come together to lift your work like the house in Up, elevating it beyond what your readers encounter in their everyday life. This is what separates true writing from just a bunch of sentences pushed together like introverts at a house party. 

When you construct a sentence around the word it, instead of filling up the balloon, you’re sucking air out of it. Some constructions even go so far as to completely pop the balloon, rendering that paragraph useless as good writing. 

Let’s look at some examples.

Bad: If you are an author, it is very good to have an online presence.

This is one of the most common it constructions that will render your writing unreadable. The point of your sentence is that having an online presence is good, so tucking it at the end means your reader has to slog through a bunch of words before finding out what your sentence is really about. Even if you flipped it around, put the dependent clause at the end, the subject of your sentence would still be it, leaving the point of your sentence, to have an online presence, to modify it.

But there’s another problem with this it construction: the phrase it is. Using it as the subject of your sentence is weak writing, as shown, but using it is rather than it’s is a sure sign of a weak writer. It is indicates to your reader that not only do you form weak sentences, but you’re also still relying on writing “rules” rather than writing confidently in your own voice. One of the first rules of essay writing in school is to avoid contractions. Contractions are informal, they’re too chatty, etc. etc. Which is true. But outside the world of academia, especially in the world of internet writing, voice is everything. What is there to distinguish you from the masses if you don’t have a unique voice?

Better: Having an online presence is very important for authors.

Not only does this sentence get rid of it and put the point of your sentence into the subject seat, it removes the direct address (you) and replaces good with something more concrete. Addressing the reader should only be done when you specifically mean to speak to the reader. In that last sentence, I, the understood writer, wanted you, the reader, to pay attention and apply my words to your life. The phrase if you are an author implies that the writer simply wanted to get across the idea that the next half of the sentence would apply to authors. So, removing the wordiness and unnecessary direct address strengthens the sentence.

Exchanging good for important also strengthens the sentence, adding specificity and providing a stronger introduction for your reasoning. Claims should always be backed up by reasoning, and using important cues the reader to think, why is it important? Using good, on the other hand, is a brush-off. Good has become nearly meaningless due to overuse and an overabundance of various meanings, so saying it’s good will cause your reader to go, yeah okay and brush past your sentence.

Bad: I love cereal. I was eating it yesterday when it became obvious my phone was broken. So I threw it away.

The problem here is too many different uses of the same pronoun. It’s the same problem as saying, he went to his house to give his stuff back. The meaning can probably be deduced pretty easily, but it’s not the immediate understanding that should come with good writing. If your reader has to spend even a fraction of a second trying to figure out what you’re trying to say, you’ve failed. You’ve pulled your reader out of the narrative you’re creating and caused her to remember that she’s reading, not just having information injected directly into her brain. 

Good writing makes you forget you’re reading.

Better: I was eating cereal yesterday—my one true love in this life—when I realized my phone was broken. I threw the phone away and kept eating.

Whenever you can, replace it with whatever it is standing in for. If you can delete words and combine sentences in the process, all the better. Strong writing is concise writing. That isn’t to say pull a Hemingway and delete any words over two syllables, just be conscious of what extraneous words you’re using. If it’s not adding anything—personality, new information, rhythm—to your sentence, it doesn’t need to be there. And if it can be replaced with a concrete noun, it doesn’t need to be there.

Don’t, however, replace it with a noun and leave the same poor construction. I put the cereal in the cereal bowl and ate the cereal while watching a movie is an atrocious sentence. Use your common sense. Use your ear for language.

Bad: It was sunny outside.

A big problem with it is the use of passive voice. When you form your sentences around it, passive voice naturally follows, and suddenly you’re constantly telling instead of showing. You’re telling your reader what’s happening instead of painting a picture with your words. This is boring. Nobody wants to read this, whether it’s fiction or not.

This construction also creates the problem of repetition. Writers who use it was tend to use the simple subject/verb/object construction for nearly every sentence. It was sunny outside. He was sitting on the porch, and the dog was laying at his feet. A car drove up. A woman got out. She was pretty, and he knew she was out of his league. Using the same construction repeatedly lulls a reader into a sense of complacency, and soon he finds he’s losing interest in what you’re saying. You’re not creating music, you’re shoving sentences together.

Better: The sun shone brightly through the window.

This creates a picture. This shows the reader the scene instead of telling her it was sunny and making her imagine it on her own. It’s also more rhythmic, allowing for the next sentence to use a different construction and keep the reader engaged. Of course, different constructions can follow it was sunny, too, but you’ve got a better chance of creating music if you’re conscious of avoiding poor it constructions.

Of course you shouldn’t stop using the word it entirely. That would be impossible, and would make your writing clunky and off-putting. But avoiding sentences that center around it will improve your writing exponentially. The point of good writing is not to follow a bunch of rules. The point is to be conscious of what words you’re using and why you’re using them. Anything else keeps your writing firmly and awkwardly on the ground, deflated and useless.