Summer is upon us in New York City and the sweltering heat is doing something to me head. I feel as if some of my posts lately can easily fall into the category of “curmudgeonly” or “grumpy,” and, perhaps, this one will as well. I recently did some freelance editing for a company, like many companies, that had its own house style. I’ve written reviews and edited for organizations before that had their own styles which I always tried to adhere to, but these past styles have been, in a sense, creative and engaging (even when the venue hasn’t been a particular creative or engaging one).
So, I did a few edits for the company which I realized right from the beginning (okay, maybe not right but incredibly close) was going to be like pulling teeth. I recall in high school, some of my friend’s in freshman English telling me that their teacher would take off points if they used contractions in their essays. Whole points! I know that the old standard in academic and business writing is to avoid contractions at all possible costs, but penalizing a person seemed extreme. A friendly reminder should be suitable enough.
But going back to my recent experience…this company, like many, nixed contractions. Everything had to be spelled out (with the exception of numbers–even small numerals like 1, 2, 3). What I edited were generally massive information dumps disguised as reviews by people who had lukewarm writing skills. Not only were they forced to abide by these strict rules, but so was I. No problem, right? But the problem is that this writing was not academic or solely business writing. The company wanted these reviews to appear engaging, creative, and quick to read. In short, they wanted narratives.
I found it easy to avoid contractions at all costs. But then something happened. I felt this infiltrating my own writing; I felt it becoming something that I could easily pick up on as I read the news or an email; I felt it immediately when I recently started reading a novel which utilizes the limiting of contractions as a technique for the voice.
The grammatical rule is that contractions are informal and should be relegated to speech and everything should be spelled out in essays, academic writing, and business. The argument is that by writing words fully, you are making your point clearly and efficiently. Contractions give an air of conversation.
But I ask myself, is this true? Is this outlook, perhaps, outdated? Maybe, in an essay or report where you have more freedom to write effectively and conform to your own standards, writing without contractions is no big deal. Alas, I found this company’s house style–contractions included–dull and dimwitted. They employed a dumb-downed approach that included the same list of vocabulary terms which one could poach from. My guess is that by nixing contractions, they wanted their reviews to read fluidly and clearly. Yet, by putting too many restrictions on language in hopes of producing crisp content, they boxed themselves into a mundane and repetitive system.
I am a fan of both contractions and spelling things out. Each come in handy for certain things and emphasize moods, language, and emotion, but, maybe I am thinking of this with my fiction writer cap on. Thoughts?