I was just wondering what your thoughts were on using contractions in narration, for example having the narrator say ‘He wasn’t sure’ instead of ‘He was not sure’. I’ve been told that it’s too informal, and sounds too much like speaking, especially when the narration isn’t in the first person. (There is, of course, always the rather sneaky thing of getting rid of them to increase your word count.) I’ve always used them, but ever since getting that piece of advice, I’ve been wondering whether or not they do take something away from my writing and should only be reserved for dialogue.
What do you think?
Welcome to the writer’s blog. Unfortunately, you’ve hit on one topic that has been a source of controversy since people started writing books. Both sides are right in their own way and both sides are also abjectly wrong. There is no rule governing what’s right and wrong in terms of writing. One person may be turned off by contractions while someone else might think they’re better because they’re less wordy and sound less formal.
I can’t give you the be all, end all answer, as much as I’d like to, but here’s my take on it:
What are you writing?
I ask because this is where it might matter.
If you’re writing a formal piece like a textbook, a thesis, or a scientific paper, I’d say yes. You’d absolutely want to forgo using contractions. That is a formal piece and you want it to sound as scholarly as possible. Contractions simply don’t fit the bill here.
If, however, you’re writing a story, say a piece of fiction, I’d argue that it’s important to connect with your readers on their level. Write in a way they’re used to talking and it’ll be easier for them to read.
Look back on some of the great ‘unedited’ works of old. Mark Twain, for example. He wrote in a way people back then spoke. Today, many people consider his writings racist, but the truth is that he was writing for his time in English that was considered ‘modern’ at the time. Honestly, it’s how I write. If your audience speaks modern English and uses the same idioms, they’ll have an easier time reading your work.
Now keep in mind… this is not clearance to write like your average texting teenager. When I was a history teacher, I gave no quarter to anyone who wrote ‘2night in da newz’ or ‘u r ther.’ That’s just… well that’s not even English, it’s just laziness.
So in summation, I’d say it depends on what you’re writing. If it’s something formal, scholarly or scientific in nature, I’d say your advisory is correct. Contractions aren’t professional looking or proper. If you’re doing something that’ more intended as a casual read, then by all means use contractions and terminology that people use in every day life.
Hope this helps.
Readers, what do you think? Should Ellen stick to more traditional styles of writing or adopt a more contemporary form?
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Good advice there. Given that society has gotten more casual (how many places actually require suits as work attire anymore?), I’d say it was spot on for connecting with readers.
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I read contractions differently.
He was not sure. Maybe he should have phoned ahead, but that might have tipped them off.
Maybe he should have phoned ahead. He wasn’t sure. That might have tipped them off.
The first reads like straight narration. I read the second as more personal and familiar, like getting inside the person’s head. But maybe that is just me.
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