Ask an editor: Contractions in a novel manuscript


Susan writes:

I believe if you use contractions in a manuscript, consistency demands using them in both dialog and narrative. A fellow writer was told by an editor to use contractions in dialog but not narrative. I’ve scoured CMS but can find no direction. Can you offer some wisdom?

Susan’s question triggered a question of my own. Not for Susan, but for her friend’s editor: Why?

Why allow contractions in dialog, but forbid them in narrative?

As I’ve written elsewhere, contractions have a long and noble history, and I have no objection to seeing them used everywhere, including formal business and legal documents. Why not in novels, in both dialog and narrative?

William Zinsser likes contractions. “Your style will be warmer and truer to your personality,” he writes in On Writing Well, “if you use contractions like ‘I’ll’ and ‘won’t’ and ‘can’t’ when they fit comfortably into what you’re writing.”

Patricia T. O’Conner agrees. In Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, she asks “Isn’t it time we admitted that the contraction has earned its place in the sun? It has all the qualities we admire in language: it’s handy, succinct, and economical, and everybody knows what it means.”

Not content to leave it at that, I polled a random sampling of fiction. Dean Koontz uses contractions. Ray Bradbury uses contractions. Jeffrey Overstreet, contractions. W. Dale Cramer, contractions.

Susan, I can think of no reason to allow contractions in dialog, but forbid them in narrative. Naturally, if you’re dealing with the set style of a particular publishing house, you have to adhere to that style.

But if I were in that situation, I would certainly ask my editor that question: “Why?”

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5 Responses to Ask an editor: Contractions in a novel manuscript

  1. Susan says:

    Thank you. I feel vindicated. I, too, wondered what that editor’s rationale was.

    BTW, shouldn’t the first “it’s” in the O’Conner quote be sans apostrophe, since it’s a possessive?:

    “Patricia T. O’Conner agrees. In Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, she asks ‘Isn’t it time we admitted that the contraction has earned it’s place in the sun? It has all the qualities we admire in language: it’s handy, succinct, and economical, and everybody knows what it means.’”

    • Roy Jacobsen says:

      Susan,

      You are welcome.

      And thank you for pointing out my typo. You are correct that it should be its and not it’s, and I have corrected the post. Even though I know better, that particular error seems to plague me more than any other.

  2. Erica says:

    Whew.
    I was worried because I just read a blog by an author I enjoy who says you can only use contractions in dialog and direct thoughts, unless writing in first person (where the whole story is in deep thought). He says deep third doesn’t count, because it’s “fake” internal dialog, not genuine.

    I’m using a lot of deep third in my novel, and to me, not using contractions in my narrative would feel as strange and out of character as using a simile like “his heart revved like a jet engine” in a fictional setting that hasn’t invented jet engines yet.

    I’ve read plenty of writer and editor blogs that say it is now acceptable to use contractions in business and technical correspondence/articles, so it seemed really strange to me that there would still be a “rule” about using them in fictional narrative, which is generally ahead of the curvewhen it comes to changing the old rules.

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