Using Contractions in Fiction

editors-cornerBy Chris Saylor

When you were in school and writing research papers, essays, etc., you were probably taught, like I was, that you shouldn’t use contractions in your writing. We were supposed to avoid them at all costs, as they make our writing too intimate to the reader. Our teachers instead wanted us to create a professional distance.

But when we’re writing a novel, we’re not writing a research paper. This is one of those “rules” that fiction writers should be ready, able, and willing to break.

What you write should mirror real life. People in real life who avoid contractions sound stiff and formal, and you don’t want your characters—who you want your reader to “bond” with—to feel stiff and formal.

You can go the route of avoiding contractions for effect. If you’re trying to create a stiff, formal character, for example, then you can leave contractions out of their dialogue.

You have to be careful about the effect you’re going for, though. I once edited a manuscript where the bad guy was differentiated by speaking normally during the first part of the book and very formally in the latter part of the book. I was confused by the difference, and the author didn’t reveal to me until after the fact that they had made the change on purpose. If you want to avoid using contractions for effect, you need to make sure you’re consistent in avoiding contractions, or you risk your reader being confused and possibly turned off the book.

The moral of this story is: Use contractions for more lifelike dialogue, and avoid contractions for effect.

Do you have any rules you would like to see discussed? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll be sure to address them.

Every Saturday for the foreseeable future, I’ll be here in the Editor’s Corner, simplifying some of these grammar concepts for you and showing you how they specifically apply to your fiction. Coming up next week is my Homophone of the Month (fair vs. fare).

Want to hire Chris for a proofread or copy edit? You can find out more about him at, or you can email him to talk about rates and availability at christopher.saylor21 [at] You might also want to check out the book he co-wrote with Marcy, Grammar for Fiction Writers, available at Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, or Apple iBooks.

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