Don’t use the word ‘it’
I recently discovered a magic rule for instantly clarifying your technical writing: don’t use the word “it”.
I very frequently use the word “it” when writing, in order to refer to something previously mentioned. The hope is that, in the reader’s mind, the word “it” resolves to the same thing I am thinking of, because context demands that the word couldn’t sensibly resolve to anything else.
Unfortunately, the reader is not as telepathic as I tend to assume. I know this because I am often my own reader: some time later, I re-visit and re-read my notes, only to find that these notes are not as clear as I had imagined when writing them. To decipher which thing is referred to by “it”, the reader must understand everything that has been written up to that point. This understanding is the context which is necessary in order to disambiguate the word. The word is resolved semantically rather than syntactically. As the reader continues, the job gets harder: more candidates for “it” are introduced, and the certainty required to disambiguate them slowly dissolves.
There is a simple solution: avoid the word “it”. Instead, refer to the referent explicitly.
This rule actually applies to a bunch of “it”-like words:
More by Jim
- Project C-43: the lost origins of asymmetric crypto
- How Hacker News stays interesting
- My parents are Flat-Earthers
- The dots do matter: how to scam a Gmail user
- The sorry state of OpenSSL usability
- I hate telephones
- The Three Ts of Time, Thought and Typing: measuring cost on the web
- Granddad died today
- Your syntax highlighter is wrong
I wrote this because I felt like it. This post is not associated with my employer. Found an error? Edit this page.