Contractions don’t have to be painful

This entry was posted on Tuesday, October 13th, 2009 at 10:12 PM

Why are people so afraid of contractions? I don’t mean contractions as experienced by mothers-to-be in labour. For goodness’ sake, people have every right to be afraid of that sort of contraction. Just thinking about them makes me wince and brings tears to my eyes. And I haven’t had children!Anyway, I digress and I’m feeling queasy so back to my point. The contractions I’m talking about are things like:

People seem to think they are a bit slangy and must be avoided at all costs. However, using it’s instead of it is doesn’t make you look sloppy: quite the opposite in fact. Contractions help to make your copy more engaging AND easier to read.

Don’t believe me? Well take a look at these examples. The first is taken from one of my own website pages. I wanted the copy to reflect my personality and to read more like a conversation than a missive. Here it is without contractions:

Here is what I can do for you.

I have written for a wide range of formats and audiences.

As well as creating copy from scratch, I am also happy to work with existing copy that is not quite saying what you want. Perhaps you get copy that has been translated from another language: I can make sure it works for you.

I have worked direct with clients, and with marketing and PR agencies.

But perhaps as important as the above, I have been the client.

Stuffy, formal, and boring. Not how I want to come across. Here’s how it actually appears on the site:

Here’s what I can do for you.

I’ve written for a wide range of formats and audiences.

As well as creating copy from scratch, I’m also happy to work with existing copy that isn’t quite saying what you want. Perhaps you get copy that’s been translated from another language: I can make sure it works for you.

I’ve worked direct with clients, and with marketing and PR agencies.

But perhaps as important as the above, I’ve been the client.

Just using a simple apostrophe to replace some of the words injects a bit of life into it. It lifts the copy, makes it flow better, and it sounds more natural.

OK, so what if you are writing on behalf of an organisation about something a little more serious? What if you identify that your audience is very senior and perhaps older? You still don’t have to succumb to stiff, stilted writing to get them to read it.

Most of our marketing communications – websites, newsletters, brochures, or reports – land on the desk of very busy people. Presumably we want them to be read. That means we have to make it easy to read in a hurry. And contractions help that along.

I’m not suggesting you should use them exclusively – variety helps to make copy interesting. But reading copy devoid of any contractions is like wading through a muddy field in Doc Martens that are already caked in mud (and imagine you’re trying to flee from a herd of angry-looking cows … but that’s another story).

Here’s another example. It’s from a newsletter I’ve just written for a not for profit organisation. The newsletter’s main audience is supporters and customers of the organisation’s charity shops. However it will also go to senior executives in business and local government. They want the newsletter to get across important and serious messages, but they also want it to be engaging. And to be read.

This article is about how they are investigating setting up a credit union to help low-income families:

It’s a big issue for us so we’ve been investigating the idea of setting up a credit union in the boroughs. We’ve funded a feasibility study to gauge interest.

Here it is without the contractions:

It is a big issue for us so we have been investigating the idea of setting up a credit union in the boroughs. We have funded a feasibility study to gauge interest.

The second version sounds unnatural and affected, and pretty much as you would expect from such an organisation. However, the original version with contractions is punchier and far less turgid.

Contractions are even more important in direct or reported speech. Here’s a quote in the same newsletter. The article is about the book basement in one of the charity shops and the quote is from the shop manager:

“It’s run entirely by volunteers, one of whom has worked in books all her life. She’s categorised everything to make browsing really easy”.

And here it is without contractions:

“It is run entirely by volunteers one of whom has worked in books all her life. She has categorised everything to make browsing really easy”.

We simply don’t speak like that. If we did we would sound like robots or aliens out of Star Trek or Doctor Who.

According to a post on Roy Jacobsen’s blog ‘Writing, Clear and Simple‘, Rudolf Flesch, author, readability expert and writing consultant, was a big fan. Flesch created the Flesch Reading Ease test and was co-creator of the Flesch-Kincaid readability test.

So it’s safe to assume Rudolf knows a little bit about readability. This is what he wrote in his 1966 book -The ABC of Style:

“…the more contractions you use, the more your writing will resemble idiomatic, spoken English. In fact, the spelling out of usually contracted words is sometimes downright unidiomatic and wrong.”

Roy also quotes William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, on the subject:

“Your style will be warmer and truer to your personality if you use contractions like “I’ll” and “won’t” and “can’t” when they fit comfortably into what you’re writing. “I’ll be glad to see them if they don’t get mad” is less stiff than “I will be glad to see them if they do not get mad.” (Read that aloud and hear how stilted it sounds.) There’s no rule against such informality-trust your ear and your instincts.”

I like Zinsser’s advice on reading your copy out loud. It’s always a good idea anyway as it gives you a sense of how it will sound to your audience.

And on another point, it’s something that Rona Wheeldon of The Organised PA recommends as a good proof-reading technique. Rona has proofread this newsletter by the way.

As with everything you write (unless it’s a highly personal diary), you need to think about your audience. What impression will they get about you, your company, products or services, from your writing?

If you want to come across all Vulcan-like then avoid contractions. If you want to sound human and approachable, give them a go.

VW Blue Motion ad makes me green with envy – a great illustration of clear, simple, but creative copy | Does your CV get you noticed?

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Hello. I'm Elaine, I'm a copywriter and this is my blog.

It's mostly about words and writing - things that inspire me, entertain me, and make me smile. Sometimes it's about things that horrify me so much I want to scream and shout!

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