I’d originally written the article on Rothko as an intro to this one. I’m going to be lazy and say, “Go read that one,” so I don’t have to come up with another intro. Intros are just way too complicated.
So it’s lazy. I’ll admit it. But so much brain power went into that intro! As it evolved, I had to create an entire post. But sometimes, hard work makes better stuff. And sometimes, the more we pay attention to the details, the better we become at our craft.
A lot of the writing advice I give seems ridiculous or tedious to those who evaluate their writing by the quality of their grammar. But good writing is so much more. Like Rothko’s greatness, much of it is difficult, maybe impossible, to pinpoint. And that is why people dedicate their lives to studying art.
Also like Rothko’s art, good writing is just as much what you don’t say as it is what you say. The best writing will have the essentials and no unessentials. Basically, if you want your writing to be good, get rid of everything that doesn’t add value.
Today’s exhibit is what I will call nominative pronoun subjects like “there is,” “it was, ” “here are.” These are most likely used as a second sentence or in introducing lists. Here are a few examples:
J/k. I gave you the examples as I was typing that paragraph. See what I did there?
These cheap tricks are grammatically correct as long as they have a proper antecedent and subject-verb agreement. But are they necessary?
At first consideration, there isn’t a lot that can replace them one for one. So you might think they are the best words for the job. Effective editing of these phrases usually requires reconfiguration, often combining sentences or eliminating them altogether. And that level of editing brings further writing weakness to light.
Take the first sentence of the previous paragraph as an example: At first consideration, there isn’t a lot that can replace them one for one.
The sentence makes sense, and it’s grammatically correct regarding antecedent and subject verb agreement. You may not have even noticed I hypocritically used it, because we have become accustomed to the trick. Nonetheless, it’s bad writing.
What’s so bad about the gross exploitation of pronouns?
First, especially in web writing, readers are lazy. Readers don’t read every word, and readers don’t like to think. Writers can ensure readers are getting the important words by eliminating unimportant words where possible. And instead of asking the reader to remember what was previously written, the writer should just recall it in their writing.
Second, it’s just lazy. You might as well replace them with stuff or things (elements of bad writing I hope you already know are bad).
Third, renaming your subject is an opportunity to add value without adding another sentence. Instead of writing “this is a dangerous mistake,” I can write, “This dangerous mistake…” If it works, I could further edit to,”Dangerous mistakes…” Instead of arguing with an additional sentence, you converted the subject into your argument!
Fourth, specific subjects make powerful sentences. “Calling it a spade” is far less effective than “Calling a spade a spade.” Especially for web writing, ambiguity can undermine a quote’s sharability for social media. The most shareable quotes for Tweeting and Pinterest DIY have explicit meaning.
Correcting this specific bad word habit is challenging. The solutions I find for the example I gave above risk repetitiveness, passive sentence structure, awkward phrasing, and other equally bad writing. For the sentence in question, I had to take it through several versions (only a sampling shown):
(Original) At first consideration, there isn’t a lot that can replace them one-for-one.
- Replacements are seldom one-for-one.
- Editing these phrases one-for-one is challenging.
- An initial one-for-one edit won’t solve the problem.
How important is it? Why go through all that work for something the average reader doesn’t notice or wouldn’t consider bad writing? Because whether we notice them or not, these little intruders are killing our writing.
On a road trip last summer, my family and I listened to Chesterton’s The Invisible Man (audio on Spotify). I won’t give away the surprise, but let’s just say the murderer was a common, socially acceptable and, therefore, almost imperceptible intruder that eluded Britain’s finest.
If you don’t want your writing murdered in spite of all your necessary precautions (proper grammar and what not), cut out the invisible intruders.