Wednesday, September 28, 2011

It's such a little word

But it's a real problem:


I see "it" all the time in manuscripts, including my own, but I never realized how big of an "it" problem I had until I started working with my publishing house to edit The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt manuscripts and my editors were marking out "it" an embarrassing amount of times.

Now, "it" is often a necessary word. There's one rule about using it that I find particularly funky, which is:

It's = contraction for it is.
Its = Gets used like "Their conversation turns to its usual minutiae"
But if you're using "its" in a possessive way, there's no apostrophe. 

So while I know it looks right to say, "The coffee sloshes inside the confines of it's cup." That's not right. You write it, "The coffee sloshes inside the confines of its cup."

Now that we have that out of the way, let's talk about why it gives us such trouble. "It" is not specific. In one sentence "it" refers to a dog, in the next, the sunrise. Whenever you can, use a specific word.

Let's look at an example that I pulled out of a work in progress:

She turns it over in her hands. “You read it, I suppose.”
“I did. I shouldn’t have when I realized it wasn’t for me, but I did.”
It doesn’t matter.” She tucks it into her bag and sets her shoulders.

5 uses of the word "it." You can likely tell the girls are talking about a note - especially within context - but I'm really making my life harder on my reader. I'll leave it in the dialogue, but the others I'll try to get rid of. Maybe, "She turns the note over in her hands" and "She tucks the square of paper into her bag and sets her shoulders."

There's a balance with this of course. Like in these lines:

...I say, tipping my head back to enjoy the last drop of Coke. It’s a sympathy can. Ella and Katelyn bought it for me as a consolation to losing Dave. 

It would be cumbersome to replace the "its" in here.

...I say, tipping my head back to enjoy the last drop of Coke. The Coke is a sympathy can. Ella and Katelyn bought the Coke for me as a consolation to losing Dave.

Makes me giggle, which isn't the response I'm trying evoke from my reader.

One last thing is you should get in the habit of double checking sentences that start with "It," especially if it's the beginning of a paragraph. 

Like if you're starting off a paragraph (or a scene or a chapter) with "It was cold and rainy, and I didn't feel like doing anything." You can pull your reader into the scene better if you replace "it." What was cold and rainy? The morning? The afternoon? The first day of school? The day her parents told her they were getting divorced? "The afternoon was cold and rainy" at least tells the reader something.

Evaluating your use of "it" in your manuscripts is a great way to tighten up your writing and add description. I can think of lots of cheesy closing lines involving the word "it" but I'm going to suppress my dorkiness and refrain.


  1. Awesome advice! I never thought about all the "it"s! Oh, yes, and the apostrophes! They're my favorite bit of punctuation, I like it when they're handled with care :D


  2. Great post, Stephanie! Sometimes those problematic pronouns give me headaches. LOL I so know what you're talking about.

  3. When you pointed out the dangers of letting "It" lead, I echoed "a paragraph (or a scene or a chapter)" with "OR A BOOK!" Whoops. Guilty. :)

    Putting "Do a word search on IT in WIP" on my to-do list. :)

  4. I'm so glad you have this post, Stephanie. I come from a long line of English teachers, and this has been pounded into my head since I was about eight, so it really bugs me when people use "it" (its, it's, or the atrocious and totally made up "its'") wrong. And don't get me started on "there," "their," and "they're!" :D THANKS STEPHANIE!!!

  5. Haha, that line made me giggle, too. :P It just sounds so silly. :D
    What a helpful post. I will definitely be looking out for that!

  6. Micah, you're such a writer. I love that you have a favorite "bit" of punctuation.

    Susie, I'm always amazed at how many of these I correct in my second and third drafts...

    Rachelle, no judgment here :)

    Emii, so glad you found it helpful!

    Becki, I'm jealous! Grammar has never been my thing, though I've always been able to spell well. I didn't figure out the whole good and well thing until a couple years ago when my husband said very simply, "Well is an adverb." Oh. Right.

  7. Haha. Actually, I have no clue what anything is CALLED, but I know what it should look like. I've actually never had a formal English lesson in my life (Yes, I homeschool). But my problem is more in the character development area. I can get all my sentences straight, but I never want my "pet" character to have anything wrong with him/her. Oh, well, practice makes perfect, I guess. (sorry, I got off topic)

  8. Becki, it's a tough balance. You know they need to be flawed to be likable ... but you don't want them to be SO flawed that the reader won't hang with them. You're right, it just takes practice.

  9. I really enjoyed this post makes me want to go check some of my writing :) Sierra
    Keep Growing Beautiful♥ (Cause You Are!)

  10. Haha, Becki, I know what you mean -- I totally zone out in school when we talk about adverbs and all those complicated things. When I write, I write. I don't think about it.

  11. Hey Emii (I like how your name is spelled, by the way), Yeah, when I write, I just KNOW when something's right (although every once in a while, I have to ask my mom if something's right). But, like I was saying earlier: it's not that I can't learn names for things, I just have never been TAUGHT any of it. My mom just let me write whatever I wanted to for school, but English was never a requirement, even though we did more than we probably would've in a classroom :D.

  12. Gosh... well what about word counts and things? I know its not good to use short words like that, but when you have a word count limit if your getting published... how do you manage that? :-/

    Very good advice though, it's hard figuring out where correct words and punctuation go. (Notice the correct use of "it's" lol. :D Gold star for me! x)

  13. Jazmine, that's a great question. Cleaning up your "its" is only going to polish up your writing. While it might beef up your word count slightly, I don't think it would add a noticeable amount of words. And a word gets counted as a word regardless of its length, so changing out "it" for "Kalamazoo" only matters on Twitter, where they count characters :)

  14. Okay lol. I'm still getting the hang of shortening my word count, though I am happy with my work on one of my books because I shortened it by a thousand words.