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Writing Series Part 2: Be a Wordsmith, Replace 'It'

Updated: Mar 8, 2020

What would the world have missed out on if, upon picking up a paintbrush for the first time, Michelangelo had said “I’m just not a good painter” and walked away? What would have happened if Edison had thought, “Eh, I am not going to solve this lightbulb thing”…well, we would all still be in the dark. I highly doubt that Mariano Rivera, considered one of the most dominant relievers in major league baseball history, threw his signature cutter perfectly on the first attempt.

These individuals, and every other individual who is considered a master of their craft, took the time to develop the necessary skills. One of the most frustrating phrases to come from students is: “Well, I am just a terrible writer,” as though writing is a gift bestowed upon people at birth. The truth is, writing, just like any sport, instrument, invention, or craft is an endeavor that can be honed and mastered.

I am a big believer in the idea that either the reader struggles, or the writer struggles. If you are applying for a job, writing an admissions essay, or even an interoffice memo—you do not want the reader to struggle! The following multi-part writing series identifies and demonstrates a few small changes that can be implemented in an effort to minimize reader struggle and demonstrate excellent writing. First up: replacing It in formal writing.

People love to use the word it. They sneak it into writing as though just the mere use of it will automatically clarify what the writer intends to say. It becomes vaulted into seemingly self-explanatory positions with It is important, or It is necessary... In reality, the reader has no idea what exactly is important or necessary. Therefore, the first recommendation in the series is to replace it with what is actually meant. Here are some examples:

Email from Boss to Subordinate:

“I need you to take the meeting minutes from last Wednesday’s meeting and write up a memo to the staff based on the new regulations we discussed. The minutes are in my office. Please put it on my desk when you are finished. It is important that we do this quickly.”

There are some problems with this email. While the boss may think that they are being clear, the language actually leaves the reader with some confusion—for example, should the memo writer leave the meeting minutes on the desk, the memo on the desk, or both? Is the need for speed because the boss needs the meeting minutes back quickly, a draft for approval quickly, or the message needs to be sent out to the employees quickly? Here is a better approach:

“I need you to take the meeting minutes from last Wednesday’s meeting and write up a memo to the staff based on the new regulations we discussed. The minutes are located in my office. Put the draft of the memo on my desk when you are finished. Please have a draft to me quickly so that I can relay the message to HR before sending the final product to the staff.”

The second message clarifies not only which document should go where but the need for the haste is also clarified. Here is another example:

College Admissions Essay: (Prompt: Talk about a difficult decision you had to make)

“It was by far the hardest decision I had ever made. I was on the softball team and it was our last playoff game of the season. It was also the same night of the final chorus recital and both were happening at the same time.”

The writer lays out the dilemma of the decision but not in a way that is clear or particularly interesting. Here is a more crafted attempt that properly lays out the dilemma and is more stylistically appealing:

“As a senior coming to the end of my high school career, I wanted to take advantage of all the activities that had shaped my life for the past four years. I am both a student-athlete and a member of the advanced choir, and as such I found myself in a major dilemma: Do I perform with the chorus in the final recital or do I play in the big game? Both were happening at exactly the same time.”

These are just a few examples of the ways in which you can banish it, clarify your writing, and help the reader to struggle just a little less. Check back for Part Three in the writing series next week!

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