Simple Fixes—Contractions

No, I do not mean the kind for which Lamaze classes are taught. We all know what contractions are: the combining of two words to form a single word. I know what you are thinking; what kind of tip is this? Well, one of the things most of us are not aware of is that we tend to write much more formally than we speak, and thus avoid contractions. We do not even think about it. For example, did you notice there were no contractions in the previous sentences? Maybe you picked up on “do not,” but did you spot “you are” instead of “you’re”? What about “are not” instead of “aren’t”? There are exceptions, but generally speaking you do it without even realizing. I’ve written three full length books, and I still struggle with this.

Look over your writing, any kind of writing. I think you’ll be surprised how many instances you see where you probably should use a contraction and aren’t, though it might take some effort to see them. A good way of doing this, and one I use, is to read the paragraph backwards. Not the sentence, just the paragraph. Read the last sentence forwards, then read the one before it, and so on until you reach the start. This confuses your brain, since you’re not relying on the previous sentence(s) to continue the flow of ideas, and you’ll more easily see each line on its own. I find that reading the line aloud helps too. While there’s nothing grammatically incorrect in not using contractions, but you want your writing, especially your dialogue, to sound authentic. For example: in Star Trek: The Next Generation there was a character named Data. He was an android, and a flaw in his programming (Trekkers, no emails please) prevented him from using contractions. For those unfamiliar with the show, it sounds like a very minor thing, but you’d be surprised how unnatural it sounds.

Of course there are times when not using a contraction is completely proper and even helpful. If you’re writing something set in an earlier time period, for example, not using them will sound more authentic. I don’t know if people really didn’t use contractions as much in earlier centuries, but it sounds more formal, and we think of historical eras as having more formal speech patterns. Perhaps the most common instance in which you’ll choose to skip using a contraction, though, is for emphasis.

“Don’t open the door.”

Most of us reading that will do so without much emphasis It’s a simple request, maybe said during a meeting someone wants to keep private. Obviously you can use an exclamation point, but whenever I see those, I think of the line being shouted.

“Don’t open the door!”

See what I mean? Okay, now try this one:

“Do not open the door.”

See the difference? Sounds more forceful, doesn’t it? Foreboding, or perhaps even a little threatening?

Like everything else in writing, contractions are a tool, and like all tools, contractions work best when used for what they’re designed. A crescent wrench might make a perfectly functional hammer, but is it really as good as an actual hammer? No. So, just use the hammer.

Why am I telling you this? Well, I’ve heard from agents and editors that not using contractions is a common and simple tell that they’re reading the work of a first-time writer. While that isn’t an instant red flag, it does make those reading your work do so in a different light. Wouldn’t you rather be seen as a serious writer rather than a first-timer writer?

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