Contractions Too Informal?

“Hi Jim,

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?
Thanks,
Ellen”
Hi Ellen,
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?


Readers,

Do you have a question about writing, publishing, my stories, etc? Please feel free to post a comment or email me.
jimthewritingwizard@gmail.com
I’ll use those comments to select my next blog post.

I have been writing for several years, have 4 published works, experience with publishing and independent work, so I can hopefully be of assistance.
Please note, I only do one of these a day and will do my best to respond to everyone, but it may take some time.

Also, feel free to check out my works of Fantasy and Historical Fiction, Available on Amazon and where ever books are sold. See the link below:

http://www.amazon.com/James-Harrington/e/B00P7FBXTU

Thanks friends!
Catch you on the flip side!

-Jim

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13 thoughts on “Contractions Too Informal?

  1. wezlo says:

    Pretty good advice. Not using contractions in a narrative can make the narrative blocks, and even dialog, sound like a poorly acted b-movie. Since narrative is often an attempt to capture something about the nature of being human, and people simply don’t speak or think that way, it’s probably not helpful for fleshing out characters. In formal writing, it’s seen as sloppy.

    As for using texting language in any form of writing… sigh. I have friends who are college professors who see it all the time. It does betray a certain amount of mental laziness, but part of me shudders to think that the language is going through a massive shake up – to the point where spelling will once again be phonetic, personalized, and a mess.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I write speculative fiction and I use contractions. In my writing at the paycheck job, I will vary depending upon the audience. Something for professional publication is different than an office memo.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A good question and I agree with your reply. I write fantasy and will often use contractions as an indication of status. To me, a lack of contractions conveys stiffer language and character. Commoners contract where royalty speaks with more formality. I also tend to contract words more in dialog than narration. I have a difficult time reading dialog that doesn’t conform with the character’s age, culture, or time frame. It feels inauthentic to me when a teenager in modern America doesn’t use contractions, and that disconnect prevents me from engaging fully in the story.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. egrac3l says:

    Thank you for answering my question so quickly. I certainly appreciate your advice. I’m writing a novel-length fanfiction, although I have been wondering about this in regards to my fantasy novel as well. This certainly makes me feel better about using them in that context, though I agree, if I were writing an essay, I would try and omit them.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. jbgarner58 says:

    I agree with your advice, Jim. It very much depends on point-of-view, genre, and characterization.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Fantastic post! I can’t help but appreciate any blog that gives helpful advice to people; no matter how small. Keep up the good work Jim! I can’t wait to read more.

    Like

  7. I agree with you; contractions are fine, provided they suit the narrative voice or the tone of the piece.

    I’ve nominated you for the Versatile Blogger Award. I think you offer some really useful advice about fiction writing here, and I enjoy reading your perspective. Just thought you ought to know, and I hope you don’t mind!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. ASH says:

    I say contractions for voice in quotes, or contractions if the narrator is expressing his own unique character for the purpose of the story’s effect.
    Otherwise formal
    [sound of 2 cents bouncing…]

    Liked by 1 person

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