No Night is Too Long (Harmony Books) is a student of creative writing:
We were expected to understand about postmodernism and structuralism and deconstruction and to have a firm grasp of why Elizabeth Bowen was “good” and Maugham and Walpole were not. But all this was of small account compared with Martin's hatred of colloquial contractions.
Along with most of the class, when we first heard the term, I had no idea what these were. Martin, expressing an astonishment that approached disgust, set us right. It seemed that all his life, or since he embarked on his own first degree, he’d been vexed by the problem of how to write elisions without making the prose sound either stilted or too colloquial to the interior ear. In other words, what do you do about “don’t,” “doesn’t,” and “didn’t,” contractions constantly used in English speech, and therefore in English prose? “Do not” is impossibly stiff, “don’t” sounds common, careless, over-demotic. Martin got round it by elaborate systems of avoidance and expected us to do the same. It was his obsession.
No essays were required of us, only the first chapter or part or section of our novellas. Mine, when returned to me by Martin in his house on my first visit there, astonished me by the rings and underlinings in red ballpoint that made a pervasive design all over the typescript. Emily, my companion then and on future visits, had fewer on hers, largely due to the 1870s being popularly supposed as a time when "do not” and "does not” were used as a matter of course.
Just the same she was obliged to listen while Martin took my chapter apart. “A serious writer can ill afford to be lazy,” he began, demonstrating in his first sentence how to avoid another similar problem in English prose. “Laziness has made you write didn’t here, Tim. But suppose you had determined not to be lazy, to concentrate instead all your intellectual powers, how might you have avoided the colloquial mess you have fallen into?”
I didn't know. Or, as Martin would have preferred, I had no notion. The sentence in question ran: “The boy on the beach, staring out to sea across the long wide expanse of shingle, then dune, then wet flat sand, didn’t believe he had a chance of seeing the ship, didn’t believe in the ship’s continued existence, or that it hadn’t long ago come to grief.”
It seemed all right to me. It sounded all right when I repeated it inside my head. Emily's opinion was asked for and I could see that, if she had one, she didn’t want to give it. After a moment or two, during which Martin sat expectantly, slightly irritably, stroking the big black cat on his lap, she offered the suggestion that I might have said: “had no belief in a chance of seeing the ship.”
That made Martin laugh rather angrily. By this time I had at any rate some sort of clue as to what he was getting at and proposed: “had no faith in seeing the ship." But Martin lifted his hand from the cat’s back and waved it in a dismissive gesture.
“What we are trying to avoid is not only vulgarity, Tim, but also stiltedness. This is something I’ve noticed you people forget. If a clumsy rigidity of style were our object, no inhibition would exist in your sentence on ‘did not’ and ‘had not.’ Suppose, instead, we try it this way: ‘The boy on the beach, staring out to sea across the long wide expanse of shingle, then dune, then wet flat sand, had lost all hope of seeing the ship, no longer believed in the ship’s continued existence nor in the possibility that it had failed long ago to come to grief.' ”
Whether or not this sounded better I really don’t know, or as Martin would have had it, I no longer know. But I don’t think I knew then either. The result of it has been to make me write “don’t” and “shouldn’t” and “can’t” in any prose I attempt.