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.
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.