AutoCrit - Showing vs. Telling, the word "IT"

Why “It” Matters in Your Book

When you’re editing your book with AutoCrit, it can be quite surprising to see the word it appear high up the list as one of your most overused words.

After all, as a wide-ranging pronoun, it is one of the most commonly used words in the English language. You’d hardly be surprised to see it popping up in the majority of sentences. In fact, it ranks as the tenth most commonly used word by the Corpus of Contemporary American English, and eleventh in the Oxford English Corpus.

So why does AutoCrit seem to get picky (if not alarmist, depending on how anxious you personally get when viewing your reports!) with a simple foundational word such as this? And why does AutoCrit tend to place it inside the Showing vs. Telling Indicators report?

We’ll answer both of those questions right now.


Reason 1: Comparative Overuse

One of the key factors setting AutoCrit apart from other editing suites is that it’s built from the ground up using data from actual, published books.

This means it isn’t just a standard grammar checker or interactive style guide. It doesn’t exist only to tell you whether a sentence parses correctly or runs on too long (negatively impacting readability).

Instead, AutoCrit is all about making sure your prose comes as close as possible to proven publishing standards. It does this by comparing your writing to either:

  • The average content of its entire pool of novel data, or
  • The average content of novel data within your chosen genre.

Almost instantly, AutoCrit can read every single word in your manuscript and compare the number of times you’ve used it to the total number of times the system would expect to see those words in a logically-constructed model novel of a similar length. This way, you’re guided along a path that has the best chance of meeting what readers also expect to see.

After all, a devoted reader is quickly going to notice if your book is repeating certain words over and over again. If such repetition isn’t done skilfully, organically, or for obvious stylistic reasons, it will certainly have a negative impact on reader perception of your storytelling.

Here you can see an example of a report showing the use of it within a single manuscript. For the first scan, we’ve used AutoCrit’s default Fiction comparison setting. In the second, we’ve switched the genre to match that of the book: Mystery/Suspense.


Manuscript "It" reading - Default Fiction Setting
Manuscript "It" reading - Mystery/Suspense Setting


As you can see, the total number of times it has popped up in this manuscript is 2,287. To match the expectations of a book of this length across the widest range of genres (Fiction), the system recommends removing 482 of those.

For the Mystery and Suspense genres, however, it looks like we should aim to cut around 568. The result changes because we’ve successfully niched down – centering strictly on the expectations of the genre within which we’ve chosen to write.

So that’s reason #1: the word itself is simply showing up more times in your manuscript than it would in a comparable piece of work that’s currently selling in bookstores.


Why You Shouldn’t Ignore It

It isn’t a strict rule that every single “excessive” instance (or variant) of it should be ruthlessly excised from your manuscript just because AutoCrit has brought it to your attention. Our mantra here is that you are the author, so the decision is, ultimately, yours to make.

If everything reads just fine and works as intended, then there’s no big worry – but do spend some time jumping through to check for repetition especially. If there’s a load of itititit, jumping out at you in certain passages, there’s a good chance that’s detrimental to the reading experience. Use the opportunity to rewrite those in a less repetitious or bland way.

And speaking of bland, let’s move on to the second major reason why it isn’t an entirely innocuous word…


Reason #2: You Might Lose Immersion

This one is the reason why it is handled as an indicator that you might be telling and not showing

Given its utility as a pronoun, the word often creeps up when the author is describing things like settings, items, structures, thoughts or moods. Most commonly, areas for improvement can easily be picked out in the latter.

Think, for example, if your protagonist has just learned that a good friend stole from her. The narrative might enter her head as she deals with the emotional impact:

“It wasn’t the fact he’d stolen that hurt, exactly. It was the crushing sense of betrayal.”

When something like the above occurs, the reader gets how the character is feeling in that moment, and also understands that this character values loyalty. Losing something material doesn’t matter to them as much as broken bonds or covenants of friendship. Chances are, someone that reacts in such a way is also someone who only forms strong bonds when they are absolutely certain their loyalty isn’t misplaced and will be reciprocated.

But still, it’s quite bland. In those sentences, the author has told the reader how events have impacted the character, rather than showing these things in a more dynamic and organic way. Reader immersion can be boosted massively by conveying the character beats and personal drivers through the character’s own actions and (to a lesser degree, lest you fall into exposition) words.

This helps the reader feel part of the journey alongside the characters. They feel more a part of the events than they otherwise would, and enjoy more impactful surprises as new facets of personality are revealed through actual behavior, impact, and consequence inside the fictional world.

A handy way to tackle this is to make a momentary shift to the mind of a screenwriter. At places where you think you’re getting too detached from the reader, try to imagine you’re writing this sequence for a screenplay instead of a novel. How would the points you’re attempting to get across be delivered without the advantage of an all-encompassing narrator?

Build out the bones of the passage from that on-screen perspective, and then fill round it out with the more descriptive prose a novelist is afforded.


“It” as a Prelude to Description

When we think in the sense of basic description, using it can also signify weakness – specifically, areas where better description might bring a scene to greater life. That’s why we approach it as an identifier to watch for.

Easy examples are things like “it burned,” “it was disgusting,” or “it hurt.” These are all very simple statements that can be made more involving by conveying them through character action or reaction.

Looking out for it can also help you beef up your more detailed descriptions. Look out for instances in your manuscript where you’re using it to point out a feature – let’s say a huge chasm, for example.

“It stretched out before him: a gigantic chasm so deep it swallowed every trace of light before the bottom could reveal itself.”

Something like that would work fine, but if you’re looking to bring down your overall use of it, go ahead and get creative. Metaphor and simile work well for this, such as entering the description with “Like a [simile], a gigantic chasm stretched out before him…”

Approach your next draft with this mindset and you might discover some wonderfully immersive ways to rephrase your writing. Just be careful not to fall completely into purple prose.

These are the two major reasons why the (seemingly) harmless word it might be a prominent figure in your AutoCrit editing reports. It isn’t always bad, and it doesn’t always need to go – but do take the time to run through and think about your manuscript with these in mind. You never know what new creative avenues you might unlock by going the extra mile with something so simple!

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