Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
Some words are evocative, emotion stirrers. Some words shock, shouting from the page with rage or passion or anguish or surprise. Other words are workhorse words, nearly invisible and called upon to perform a variety of functions within a single piece of writing.
And then there are annoying words, words that show up and set the reader to gritting her teeth or shaking her head. Words that we’d like to see stricken from the dictionary, from our writing, from our minds.
I want to look at one word today, a word that’s almost always a strong and sturdy workhorse. But one that can not only annoy readers but flatten even the most lofty prose if it’s used too often or in the wrong way.
This terror of a word is it. Yes, the pronoun it.
We need it, oh, how we need it. Otherwise we’d be referring to the house or the car or the book as the house, the car, and the book all the time. It works well as a shortcut and as a substitute for single nouns.
But when it is overused, when this simple word shows up when it shouldn’t, when it wanders through chapters and scenes and paragraphs as if it were the most necessary word on the page, it zaps life from story.
Why? Because it is used not only as a pronoun referring to a specific noun. It also shows up in other uses. And all those instances of its use add up. Add up until the presence of it is obvious on a page or in a scene or chapter. Until it, by its very occurrence, drains fervor from fiction.
Besides use as a pronoun, what else can it be used for?
The Impersonal It
The impersonal it is used for time, weather, and temperature.
It was a dark and stormy night.
It was nearly midnight.
It had to be close to 90 degrees in the house.
Using these types of phrases is quite acceptable, especially if time or temperature is not crucial but merely a passing observation. (Of course, there may be no reason to mention the time or temperature if the mention is unimportant for the scene.)
Or this format can be a shortcut. Sentences without the impersonal it may be longer and more involved than what the scene or paragraph calls for. They may be unnecessarily clunky or complex.
Or they may be more exact, just what the scene demands.
The night was dark, the sky stormy.
Lightning lit the black sky, turning night to day.
The black night was rocked by storms, but no lightning eased the darkness.
The clock struck twelve. Midnight. Salem’s witching hour.
Arnie danced from foot to foot. Five more minutes. Five. Until midnight and Santa’s arrival.
The house had to be 90 degrees.
He swore the temp in the house was at least 90.
It was, it had been, it should be . . . all phrases that can work. But all phrases that could also weaken your fiction, especially if overused.
Determine the need for the impersonal it. Is it helpful? Necessary? Does it hide with little notice and do its job, or does it take center stage at the beginning of your chapters and scenes, a place that should be reserved for more meaningful words?
Check your own writing. Word processing programs have made word search simple. See how many times the impersonal it shows up in a single chapter of a WIP (work in progress). If it’s ubiquitous, consider changing the wording in some instances. There’s no reason to give attention to impersonal phrases when more specific—more emotional or more emphatic—phrases can work the story.
The Anticipatory It
The anticipatory it is used to take the place of a noun (the subject) before the noun has been mentioned. So, instead of being a pronoun referencing a noun that was just named, it, at the beginning of a sentence, anticipates the mention of a noun later in the sentence.
It would be great to have him on the team.
It’s a tragedy that your brother died.
These sentences can be rearranged so the actual subjects come first—
To have him (or having him) on the team would be great.
That your brother died is a tragedy. (Even better—Your brother’s death is a tragedy.)
Consider rewording sentences that contain the anticipatory it to strengthen meaning, to give emphasis to important phrases. To turn the reader’s eye to elements that matter.
Cleft sentences are complex sentences that could just as easily be reduced to simple sentences—the meaning would be the same. Many contain a use of it though cleft sentences can begin with all, what, and there as well.
It was speaking in French that Oliver had trouble with.
It was because of the ghosts that Ginny went crazy.
It was politics about which we were arguing.
The easy changes—
Oliver had trouble speaking in French.
Ginny went crazy because of the ghosts.
We were arguing about politics.
While sentences with this cleft construction could be useful, fiction is almost always stronger when fewer words are used.
I listed these legitimate uses of it, but there are instances when other options might make for stronger and more meaningful writing. Sometimes, legitimate or not, the use of it adds nothing to, and may take away from, the potency of a phrase or sentence.
There’s one more use of it that warrants attention. This is one I’ll call a mis-use.
Use of it as pronoun when no noun is named
I find this use of it in many manuscripts. And I find that the use of it used in this vague, inexact way easily leaches the oomph and urgency and drama from passages.
It is often used to substitute for something—person, place, thing, or idea—that the writer has never defined, forcing the reader to guess what the writer means in order to add shading or nuance to a passage that is missing that shading. Or perhaps simply missing a well thought out reference.
Examples of it referring to nothing specific or something implied—
I’d dreamed about Europe for weeks. It had always been one of my most fervent desires.
I went to the amusement park with Chester and Alan. It was fun.
Lisa, anxious and excited and anticipating, drove toward Dallas. Peter was there, waiting. She couldn’t wait to join him; it spurred her to drive like Mario Andretti in pursuit of a championship.
What does it refer to in these passages?
In the first, what had the narrator always desired? Dreaming of Europe? That doesn’t make sense. Traveling to Europe? Nowhere is travel mentioned. Something else? The use of it doesn’t tell us. Yes, the reader may be able to guess from context, but why not be specific? Exact. Why not be as careful with this phrase as we are with each of our other phrases?
What does it refer to in the second example? What was fun? There’s no specific noun that the pronoun it is replacing. Was the trip fun? The experience? The joy of spending time with her sons? Maybe the rides were fun. Maybe fun isn’t even the best word for the speaker’s experience. Maybe when the writer considers the line a bit more, she can come up with a phrase that nails the narrator’s day at the amusement park with relevant and direct words.
What of the third example? What does it refer to here? The knowledge that he was there? The knowledge that he was waiting? Her inability to wait? Maybe it refers to the anticipation?
Maybe the reference is to none of these things, but something else unnamed. The writer has the opportunity—the responsibility?—to spell out what he means. It’s the writer’s job to direct the story, although the reader is not merely a passive consumer; a good story will draw readers in as participants rather than allowing them to remain observers.
But the writer has to first create the place a reader can explore. And when the writer includes specifics, details fit for the story and characters and scene, then the reader can become lost in story rather than simply lost among words.
How would these substitutions for it affect a story?
She couldn’t wait to join him; the anticipation of his embrace spurred her to drive like Mario Andretti in pursuit of a trophy.
She couldn’t wait to join him; the delight she expected to find spurred her to drive like . . .
She couldn’t wait to join him; the shock she knew he’d feel at seeing her spurred her to drive like . . .
She couldn’t wait to join him; the knowledge that she’d kill him this time spurred her to drive like . . .
She couldn’t wait to join him; knowing she’d find peace spurred her to drive like . . .
We could, of course, use simple words in place of it and still make our meaning clear.
She couldn’t wait to join him; anticipation spurred her to drive like . . .
She couldn’t wait to join him; hope spurred her to drive like . . .
She couldn’t wait to join him; dread spurred her to drive like . . .
Our word choices make a difference, a big difference, for meaning and mood and effect. Changing it to something deliberate, something specific for the action you’re describing or the emotion you hope to achieve, will make an impact on your scenes and stories. It will give direction to sentences that have none. It will create compelling imagery.
Can I challenge you? Take time to look up every instance of the word it in your WIP. (I hear you groaning. It’s a tough challenge, I know.) First, you’ll discover how ubiquitous it truly is.
Second, I would bet that you’ll find instances of its use that are weak or inexact or confusing. Uses of it that, if changed, will bring oomph to a passage and life to a paragraph. That will help focus your story in the way you want it focused.
Third, I’m guessing that if you do this at least once, your next story will have far fewer uses of the ubiquitous it, far fewer instances of other inexact words diffusing the impact of your phrasing as well. Because once you rid your manuscripts of extra its, you’ll want to do the same for other weak words: there, was, that, were . . .
How’s your writing today? Are you using evocative words and keeping far from annoying words?
Are you putting it in its place?