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It’s time to talk about “It’s”

It’s overused. It’s lazy. It’s something that should be stopped.

The Outline

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It’s 12:15 p.m. on a gray October day in 2018 and I must warn you that this is a blog post about grammar.

Specifically, about what I just did in the first line of this post: I started it with the word “It’s.”

“It’s” is a linguistic plague that is affecting all publications.

“It’s” is lackadaisical writing.

It’s true about “It’s”: If I have to read another article that begins with “It’s,” it’s unclear what will happen, but it’s not going to be good.

It’s time that I show you some examples of ledes (journospeak for the first paragraph of an article) that begin with “It’s,” which I have quickly cherry-picked from various publications excluding the New Yorker because I am out of free articles.

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What do you think of these ledes? Here’s what I think: No. Not even two sentences into these pieces and I am ready to take to my bed for the day. This is the writing of people who have given up on writing. I have definitely written ledes like this, in my youth probably, and for that I carry with me crushing shame that prevents me from writing further.

Many different words describe these ledes: Passive. Lethargic. Stultifying. Boring-ass. You see, language is a beautiful thing. There are so many words to describe things, to use in different combinations, endless permutations of sentence arrangements. There are so many ways to begin an article that are not the ways everyone else is beginning their article. And it’s one thing to write with short, minimal, declarative sentences, which can be great; it’s another to retreat to convention. 

Another thing about these ledes — they often tell us the weather and the day of the week to “set the scene,” perhaps, even though such descriptors are superfluous. I do not need to know what the weather was during a celebrity interview unless the celebrity and writer were riding out a hurricane together. I do not need to know on which day of the week a celebrity interview occurred unless the celebrity does not believe in the Julian calendar and has created new names for the days of the week.

Anyway. Journalism presents a unique and beautiful challenge to a writer. One must convey information obtained through reporting in an engaging manner in order to inform, enlighten, and in some cases, entertain a reader. A writer might think themself a canny stylist and overwrite a piece, overshadowing the actual information in it. Or a writer might surrender to custom and begin their piece with “It’s.” Striking a perfect balance is incredibly difficult and happens maybe twice a year.

This brings me to another pervasive trend: The sad abuse of present tense.

Present tense is standard for headlines, which is why every headline now is “X is x.” It’s all very meta which, fine. Life is recursive. But more enervating is how this convention is used in ledes.

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Why? Of course, Gay Talese is to blame, for this and everything. Magazines generally use present tense for feature stories and it might all be fine if writers were more imaginative in its use. It’s a treat to use present tense! Convey action in an immediate manner... foster intimacy between reader and subject… have fun :D. These ledes try, but not hard enough. They are ruined by “is.” They are ledes that started getting dressed in the morning and then just gave up and put on a bathrobe.

Now, what is a good lede if Leah Finnegan’s Rules for Riting (sic) exclude all the easy crutches on which profilists lean? I actually quite liked the lede of this Lady Gaga profile in last week’s New York Times magazine.

A little overwritten, sure, but nice: you can see Gaga floating and then brought down to earth in a way that you cannot see Brad Pitt making matcha, or just don’t want to because you are so bored.

Leah Finnegan was the Features Director at The Outline.

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This post originally appeared on The Outline and was published October 9, 2018. This article is republished here with permission.