Pet Writing Peeves: It

The members of my writers group will tell you that overuse of the word “it” is one of my pet peeves. Don’t get me wrong. “It” is a perfectly acceptable word. But most of the time, there are better options.

Sometimes, “it” is used to refer to another word or phrase that comes later in the sentence. Let’s take a simple sentence like “It was a beautiful day.”  In this instance, “it” refers to the day. I’d say instead, “The day was beautiful.”

That’s not much of an improvement, so I’d take a look at the sentences on either side of “the day was beautiful” to see about combining the two. Let’s say we have: Cathy walked along the shore. It was a beautiful day. Seeing the ocean made her happy. I’d rewrite this as: Walking along the shore on such a beautiful day made Cathy happy. Better, don’t you think?

Where this little trick can really make a difference is with more complicated sentences. Here’s one: It was still hard for the police to hold their fire. “It” refers to what? Come on now, you’ve got this!

My rewrite would be: Holding their fire was hard for the police. Here again, the difference isn’t huge. But looking for and fixing this pattern throughout a novel makes a huge difference in how the story reads.

In other cases, “it” is a missed opportunity to add more description. Here’s an example: The purse was blue. It had a gold clasp, and it was made out of leather.

Yeah, we could say, “The blue leather purse had a gold clasp.” But sometimes, for lots of different reasons, I may not want the more concise sentence. Maybe instead, I want to tell you a little more about that purse.

If so, I’d replace one or more of the offending words with another description. The purse was blue and made of leather. The petite bag had a gold clasp. Replacing one “it” tells you something about the purse you didn’t know before.

Okay, now for your final exam. Here’s our it-riddled sentence: It was one thing to think what it might be like, but it was quite another to actually experience it.

This is a perfect example of my main issue with use of the word “it.” In our final exam sentence, I have no idea what “it” refers to. Nor does each “it” even refer to the same thing. The writer knew what they meant, but the reader is left scratching her head, wondering what the hell “it” is.

Here’s my revision: Thinking about what kissing him might be like was one thing, but to actually experience the way his lips felt on mine was something all together different. Yeah, I took a few liberties. But in the end, the sentence is much more interesting because of the additional details.

I recommend a global search for “it.” You can put a space on either side to skip words like with or bit, but you run the risk of missing any followed by punctuation. Every single “it” doesn’t need to be eliminated from a novel. Getting rid of most, however, will make a big difference in the way your story reads.

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2 responses to “Pet Writing Peeves: It”

  1. Crap. My brain just exploded. I never thought about “it” like that before.

    Or allow me to re-write that sentence.

    I never thought about the possible lack of clarification, the alternate word/phrase choices, or the liberty of interpretation given to the reader by the use of such a tiny word.

    Yep, there’s a whole lotta stuff going on with that two-letter word.

    But “it” (considering overuse of the word) is still way better than Math. 😉

    • It’s the little things, right?

      I think the whole clarity thing comes from 30 years in academia. Vagueness isn’t tolerated in journal articles 😉