Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Using Contractions in Your Writing

When you’re editing your manuscript, make at least one read-through out loud. When you read silently, it’s easy to skim through the words. You wrote them. You’ve read them a gazillion times. For at least one read-through, though, slow down and read it aloud word by word and listen to yourself.

Reading aloud helps you catch things like words that should be contractions but aren’t.

You have a character who’s describing someone else. He says:
“He is in his fifties, but you would guess him to be eighty by looks, ten by intelligence. Stairs do not go all the way to the top; know what I mean?”
Problem is, this will come across to your readers as sounding almost robotic. It doesn’t flow. It doesn’t sound the way you and I actually talk. We use contractions in our conversations.

So you instead change it to:
“He’s in his fifties, but you’d guess him to be eighty by looks, ten by intelligence. Stairs don’t go all the way to the top; know what I mean?”
A lot of the time, what we type is not what’s in our heads. We think, “I’m going to the store.” But we type, “I am going to the store.” Reading aloud helps you find areas where you need to use contractions to make the words on the page sound natural.

Of course, there are times not to use contractions. Sometimes you want to emphasize a point, like:
“I didn’t like the guy, but I would not have wanted him to die like he did in that sewage tank.”
By not contracting “would not” you emphasizing the “not” without having to italicize or underline it.

Another possible reason to not use very many contractions is if you’re writing a character who is foreign to the English language or who speaks very formally. People new to English tend to not use contractions. Think of how you were taught high school Spanish or French. You learned, My name is Helen Ginger (insert your name here, of course). You weren’t taught, My name’s Helen Ginger. So characters speaking English as their second language tend to speak as they were taught - without contractions.

This is spoken by a character of mine:
“I am glad you are still alive, Michael Dune. It is not my intention to harm you. Give me the information I need and I will help you out of this pit.”
He rarely uses contractions when he’s speaking. English is a second language for him and he was taught by others for whom English was not their native tongue.

This is not to recommend you use a contraction every time it’s possible to do so. Do look back at your manuscript, however, and work on the contractions to make dialogue sound realistic and also to make the exposition flow.
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Helen Ginger is a freelance editor, book consultant, blogger, and writer. She teaches public speaking as well as writing and marketing workshops. In addition, her free ezine, Doing It Write!, which goes out to subscribers around the globe, is now in its tenth year of publication.


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24 comments :

  1. Excellent advice. It's so true that we 'hear' one thing in our heads and write another - well, it's true of me and even when I read it I still see what's in my head! It's only by reading aloud that the mistakes jump up at me.

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  2. That's true with me, also, Chris.

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  3. Good advice, Helen.

    I find that frequently I don't use contractions in my first draft. Reading through on the revision passes, I usually change them to contractions except in cases where I need emphasis.

    I've often wondered why I don't write in contractions the first time around!

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

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  4. I've often wondered why I don't write in contractions the first time around

    Semi-serious theory here - because the "'" key isn't used that much, it's less familiar. So even though it takes longer, it's "easier" to type "not" than to use the contraction. If you write by hand, then I'm not of ideas.

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  5. I don't know the science of it, Elizabeth, but I think it may be the way we learn. Even English speakers are not taught contractions from the beginning.

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  6. You may be right, Anton. For myself, I find that I don't even have a split second of consideration of using the apostrophe key. I'm typing what's in my head and it's not until editing phase that I catch places where a contraction would be better.

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  7. Like everyone else so far, I also tend not to use contractions as much on first draft. Maybe it has something to do with how our brain processes what comes out of the creative side. The logical side says, "Don't let that weird guy on the other side get away with this. Type the full words and stay in control."

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  8. Reading the manuscript out loud was crucial for me in the revision stage. I caught all sorts of things where narrative didn't flow or dialogue didn't sound real. Great advice.
    karen

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  9. Great advice. I always find more errors in my writing when I read it out loud.

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  10. Very good points. I think it's worth saying (though it is probably obvious) that these guidelines don't just apply to speech, but can apply throughout a text if it is reflective of a character's voice.

    I wrote a story, once, in which a character didn't use contractions when he spoke. I was criticised for writing unnatural sounding speech... But that was kind of the point! He was a posh and unnatural character... Ha ha.

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  11. Thank you very much! This is advice I learned a long time ago, but I have not been reminded of it since. I will definitely use the art of contractions in my writing more extensively when the moment is right.

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  12. I read my polished (or so I think) work aloud, too. I've even recorded myself and then listened back. You not only pick up a lot that still needs work, it's a good practice for when you do readings. Sometimes the way you sound in a recording is not the way you thought you sounded and you need to do some practice on oral interpretation, even of your own work, before the time comes that you have to read to an audience.

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  13. I often "read aloud" "in my head," and wonder if it's a consequence of having been slow to learn to read. But it really helps to switch into listening mode while I edit.

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  14. I have a question. I'm not fond of semi-colons in dialogue. Once had an agent tell me we don't speak in semi-colons.

    What do the rest of you think?

    Marilyn
    http://fictionforyou.com

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  15. Marilyn, I'd have to agree with the agent. It may be grammatically correct, but it feels odd in dialogue. I tend to break it into two sentences in that case.

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  16. So very true, Helen. Reading aloud points out so much about flow and the particular character as well, if it's dialogue.

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  17. Excellent stuff, as always :)

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  18. Good points, Helen. I especially like the fact that you pointed out that there are times to use contractions and times not to. I also once had a character whose speech was very formal and he would not use a contraction. I had to be diligent in the proofing to make sure I was consistent about that.

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  19. Do any of you read aloud into a recorder - then play it back later? Distances the text even more.

    Dani

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  20. Helen,
    Great article. I use contractions generously for the very reason you quoted...improved flow.

    I have a very hard time reading novels without them because the writing is so stilted to me.

    Thank God for the apostrophe!

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  21. Ginger, you made me laugh. I agree, thank God for the apostrophe!

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  22. I agree that the reading out loud process is one of the best self-editing tools we have. It's especially good for evaluating dialogue. Very useful post, Helen.

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  23. RE: Semi colons in speech.

    I used to agree that we don't speak in semi colons and they look odd in speech, but I posed the very same question to my writing group last semester and someone came up with a very good point which has now converted me:

    Punctuation not only sometimes tells us when to pause, but HOW LONG to pause too. A full stop is a long pause. Dramatic. A comma is a short pause, creating flow, a rambling effect. A semi colon is somewhere between; it creates a different kind of pause.

    Therefore I think it CAN be used in dialogue to carefully aid the rhythm.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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