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Quote, unquote: how to correctly use quotation marks

Quotation marks (“ ”), one of the first punctuation marks you learn as a writer and one with a vast range of uses. In modern usage, we tend to encase words in quotation marks anytime we want to set it apart from other work. Rather than weigh down your work with unnecessary punctuation, check out these tips to correctly use quotation marks.

Quotation marks (“ ”), one of the first punctuation marks you learn as a writer and one with a vast range of uses. They can indicate dialogue, a direct quote from another work, even a word as a word. With a vast range of options, also comes vast opportunity to misuse the mark. It’s too easy to use the inverted commas liberally and paint them across any instance to create emphasis or affectation. But let’s start at the beginning. 

The quotation mark can be traced back to the second century B.C. with a librarian named Aristarchus, working at the Library of Alexandria. Aristarchus wanted a way to draw attention to noteworthy text and created the diple, an arrow-shaped symbol (>). From there, it was adopted by Christians to denote the direct words of God versus the author’s writing in the Bible. Later, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa made use of a single inverted comma to illustrate dialogue. 

I could gush on and on about the history of the quotation mark (#wordnerd), however I’ll wrap it up and you can read more here. 

With such a storied history and varied use, it can be difficult to determine proper use in your writing. In modern usage, we tend to encase words in quotation marks anytime we want to set it apart from other text. Rather than weigh down your work with unnecessary punctuation, check out these tips to simplify your writing.

When to use quotation marks

  • Dialogue
    • Use quotation marks when indicating a spoken word or sentence. In creative writing, this is most often conversations between characters. In non-fiction writing, this could be a quote pulled from a speech, written work, or casual conversation. 
  • Direct quotes
    • Any time you refer to someone else’s written or spoken work, word-for-word, use quotation marks. This helps you attribute the words to the author and avoid instances of plagiarism. If you’re not recounting their idea word-for-word, see the section on indirect quotes below. 
  • Titles
    • When citing the title of a work, you may need to use quotation marks. AP Style advises writers to include quotation marks around the titles of books, poems, speeches, TV shows, etc. MLA Style is more particular and advises the writer to use italics for longer works (books, magazines, reference materials, etc.) and quotation marks for shorter works or items that are a part of a larger work (poems, short stories, TV episode, etc.). 

When not to use quotation marks

  • Indirect quotes
    • If you’re indirectly quoting someone (i.e., sharing the essence of what was said or written but not giving a word-for-word account) you can skip the quotation marks. E.g., if recapping a speech you could write: The speaker touched on the challenges of writing without coffee. 
  • Scare or shudder quotes 
    • Also known as air quotes–these are instances in which you place quotation marks around a word or phrase to indicate disagreement or dissociation. Like air quotes, they most often make you look annoying instead of sophisticated. If you disagree or want to distance yourself from the word or phrase, just do it. No need to hide behind irony or quotes. 
  • Colloquialisms or slang
    • This one comes directly from our good friends Strunk & White. If you use a colloquialism or slang, don’t place quotation marks around the word or phrase. Using quotes with colloquialisms or slang, is similar to using scare quotes. It gives the appearance of affectation and makes it difficult for readers to connect or trust you. 

“If you use a colloquialism or a slang word or phrase, simply use it; do not draw attention to it by enclosing it in quotation marks. To do so is to put on airs…”

(STRUNK AND WHITE 34)

Like all good stories, the story of the quotation mark doesn’t end here. There are other grammar rules and usage rules on best practices for using quotation marks in your work. And knowing what rules to follow or discard, will help your writing stand out. 

Citation: Strunk, William, and E. B. White. The Elements of Style with Revisions, an Introduction, and a Chapter on Writing. Longman, 2000.

What to do with writing scraps

As writers, we often write things that sound great in our head and fall flat on the page. It doesn’t mean these pieces are worn out socks that we should thank and toss. Instead, given the proper atmosphere or editing that piece can turn into a sparkly bundle of joy. Here’s how to save those lovely scraps.

If you’ve been anywhere on the internet or Netflix in the last few years, you’ve probably heard of Marie Kondo and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. If you haven’t, Marie Kondo is an organizational consultant and expert as well as the founder of KonMari, a lifestyle brand. There are many facets to the KonMari Method™ of tidying up, however the premise is to only keep items that “spark joy” to promote a more mindful and peaceful lifestyle. 

The simple premise is so effective, it’s been applied to almost every industry including phone apps, food, and work spaces

Now I know what you’re thinking: this is going to be a post about applying the KonMari Method™ to writing. Good guess! However, today I’m heading the opposite direction. While I’ve read the The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and could dedicate a whole post to how shedding the excess has enhanced my personal life, I feel the opposite about writing. I don’t believe in getting rid of writing that doesn’t “spark joy”. 

Instead, I adhere to the write often and keep everything philosophy. As writers, we often write things that sound great in our head and fall flat on the page. It doesn’t mean these pieces are worn out socks that we should thank and toss. Instead, given the proper atmosphere or editing that piece can turn into a sparkly bundle of joy. 

So instead of deleting or shedding writing that doesn’t serve, try keeping it. Here are three ways to use your writing scraps. 

Add it to your story with a footnote

Write something that includes characters, settings, or plot points for a project you’re already working on? But not sure where in the timeline it fits? Or even if it fits at all? Instead of scrapping it, insert the piece into your project and include a footnote, highlight, different font color, comment–anything to distinguish that’s a TBD piece. Later, as you’re working through your editing phase you can decide if it stays, goes, or can be repurposed elsewhere. 

Bonus tip: if you’re working on Scrivener, you can always add the piece as a new document and then make a note in the title or on the corkboard that it’s TBD. 

Establish a Save for Later notebook

Like a good set of tupperware, consider creating a Save for Later or SFL notebook. This can be a paper or digital notebook–any place that can store a large amount of writing and is easily accessible. You can even get fancy and add tabs or sections to organize it by project, characters, setting, etc. Next time you’re looking for inspiration or that one sentence of dialogue is too good to leave behind, pull out your SFL notebook. 

Have a leftover night

Put that baked ziti away–I’m talking about word leftovers. Next time you’re staring at a blank page and not sure what to write, pull out your SFL notebook or other writing scraps and whip up a new recipe. Mix-and-match different scraps to create a new story; add something unexpected to a piece that’s flat; maybe edit and reheat something that’s almost there but not quite. It’s amazing how a little rearranging can bring a new dish…story to life. 

Have a collection of scraps and ready to dive into using them? Check out the Edit section for advice on revising and polishing. Go get your sparkle on.

KonMari Method™ is a trademark of KonMari Media Inc.

Scrivener: a review

Scrivener. It’s like the Evernote of word document systems; everything you need in one place. But is it worth the hype?

If you’ve been around the writing block you might have heard about Scrivener. It’s like the Evernote of word document systems; everything you need in one place. Including room for research notes, character sketches, place descriptions, and the ability to export your work in a single document.

In general, Scrivener receives great reviews for price, effectiveness, and user friendliness. But is it worth the hype? Let’s find out…

Who: 

Scrivener. Owned by the software company Literature & Latte. (A name after my own heart.) 

What: 

A software tool for writing projects. Used by writers and researchers across the board to organize and manage projects. This is a proprietary software license. I.e., you purchase a license and download the software to your device. It’s not cloud-based and you can’t access it from devices that don’t have the application installed. 

Where to buy:

Literature & Latte website

Pros 

Cons

  • You may need to download and purchase a software license if you plan to use across multiple devices. For instance, I purchased one license for my laptop and then purchased the Scrivener app for my phone.
    • N.B., in order to get the individual applications to sync (i.e., get Scrivener on your phone to sync with Scrivener on your laptop) you must set up a Dropbox account and link them. Scrivener provides detailed instructions for this.
  • If you want to sync large files or multiple projects, you may need to purchase additional space on Dropbox which is a subscription service.
  • You’ll need to back up your files on a cloud storage system or external hard drive
  • Functionality can feel confusing and overwhelming as there are a myriad of features and customization options

My take: 

Worth it. 100% worth it. I was on the fence about purchasing the software and was only tempted when I saw it highlighted as a featured product during NaNoWriMo last year. I had a system in Google Docs and it worked well enough. Not great, but no major complaints either.

So I downloaded the 30-Day trial to give it a spin (all the other cool writers were doing it) and fell in love. Switching over has vastly improved my organization. I no longer have loose or lost documents floating around Google Drive. Everything is in a tidy and compact binder where I can see exactly how the story unfolds and move chapters around as needed. Which is fantastic as I sometimes write something without knowing where it fits in the story’s timeline. Now I have the freedom to write and reorganize later. It’s also easier to keep track of multiple revisions and compare them side-by-side.

My only complaint about Scrivener is that it’s not inherently cloud-based. If I could access my Scrivener account from any device, anywhere that would be great. It would also give me peace of mind that my work is backed up. Even so, the Dropbox workaround works and I’m happy with the purchase.

If you’re serious about your writing or want to become serious about your writing, consider investing in Scrivener. 

Bonus tips

  1. You can download Scrivener for a 30-Day trial if you’re on the fence.
  2. Can’t figure out how to do something? Google it! There are thousands of videos, guides, and blog posts out there about Scrivener.
  3. Post update! Please see comments below, there are other ways to back your Scrivener up to a cloud storage system so you can access across multiple devices.

Lost & Found Poetry Workshop

Brief outline for half-day poetry workshop focused on found poems. As with any lesson plan, feel free to modify as needed to fit your intended audience. Let’s get lost in some words!

Brief outline for half-day poetry workshop. As with any lesson plan, feel free to modify as needed to fit your intended audience. Let’s get lost in some words!

Writing Genre

Poetry

Age group

8-18 years old

Workshop Activities

Reading models, structured exercises, editing/revision period, and group readings

Supplies and Materials

Text materials (old magazines, old books, brochures, manuals, newspapers–anything you don’t mind writing on or cutting out), paper, pencils, pens, markers/colored pencils, highlighters, scissors, construction paper, glue.

Objectives

Students learn to recognize the words readily available in our everyday routines and how to use those words to craft poems about the everyday. They’ll also be able to define found poetry and identify the difference between strong and weak words.

Define Found Poetry and Examples

Group discussion

What do you think is important when using someone else’s work to create a poem?

  • Allow class to brainstorm, however guide them towards the following points:
    • Don’t rewrite the poem word for word
    • Think about what the original poem is saying–can you expand upon that? Or create an entirely new meaning?
    • Give the original author credit if able

Difference between strong and weak words

  • Strong words = verbs, nouns, and adjectives
  • Weak words =  articles, prepositions, adverbs

Exercises

Random Texts

  • Each student will be given a sheet of text (magazine article, brochure, instruction manual, text page, etc.) and asked to highlight or mark any word that interests them.
  • After 5-10 minutes, students will write their own poem using the highlighted word. Students are encouraged to keep the words in order but play with spacing, breaking words apart, etc.

Different views

  • Every student will be given the same text material and asked to highlight or underline words that interest them. Keeping the words in order, students will create a poem.
  • Once complete, students will swap their poem with a partner and identify ways in which their neighbor used the text similarly or differently than they did.
  • Discuss as a group if there were any trends in how the words from the text were used. What could this potentially mean?

Multimedia Project

  • Students will be given text materials (magazines, newspapers, brochures, text book pages, etc.), scissors, glue, and coloring pencils/markers
  • Students will cut out words from the text materials and glue them onto construction or computer paper in a poem.
  • Students are encouraged to swap words with neighbors, cut and paste pictures, or draw their own pictures.

He said, she said: Writing powerful dialogue

Learn to write strong dialogue without using adverbs or verbs to modify said.

Several years ago, I participated in a Visiting Writers Series class at Butler University that focused on reading and analyzing the works of writers and poets visiting the school or local Indianapolis area. (The class name was very literal.) As part of the class, I had the honor of introducing Elmore Leonard during his lecture at Clowes Hall.

Myself and Elmore Leonard at Butler University

I could tell you some more about the introduction (it was terrifying and wonderful and I almost threw up) but the best part of the experience was the pre-lecture dinner where myself and a couple of other writers spent time with Mr. Leonard and learning about his craft. We went to the Naked Tchopstix in Broad Ripple and he told us about the tattoos he got while serving during World War II and the importance of writing every day. What stuck with me from that conversation was his advice to never use anything other than said in dialogue. No adverbs, no adjectives, no verbs. Nothing. Just he said, she said, they said, we said, I said.

At the time I nodded enthusiastically because who was I to disagree with a writing god? Later on, as I worked privately on my own prose I felt the advice didn’t work. How is the reader supposed to know my, the writer’s intent, if I don’t use sarcastically, quietly, loudly, scoffed, growled, etc. when writing dialogue? I couldn’t make them guess–that seemed cruel and unproductive. So I pocketed the advice and continued writing dialogue as I always had: peppered with clues about my intent.

Recently, I re-read Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style and came across the advice again.

“It is seldom advisable to tell all. Be sparing, for instance, in the use of adverbs after “he said,” “she replied,” and the like…Let the conversation itself disclose the speaker’s manner or condition.”

(Strunk and White 75)

And it clicked. I, as the writer, am not supposed to tell my readers about the characters. The characters are supposed to tell the readers about themselves. HOLY HELL. This whole time I’ve been writing weak dialogue by using adverbs and verbs to forcefully drag my readers down a certain path of understanding.

Opening up the last chapter I worked on, I went through and cut every adverb and verb I could find. Which meant I was editing 95% of my dialogue. Confronted with so much slashing, I realized I was relying too heavily on the writing to tell the story instead of allowing the actions and dialogue to speak for themselves. Me, the writer, was interjecting in the story like an unwanted voiceover when I should have been an observer.

While burning and slashing all words ending in -ly or -ed it became clear I couldn’t just edit out adverbs and verbs to create good prose.

“This is good cake,” she said greedily, “I adore it.”

“Of course it is,” he said sneered, “I used to work in a Parisian bakery.”

Better without the adverbs and verbs but still not great. It took time and patience and lots of what-the-hell-am-I-doing-can-I-even-write-well? but I found some tactics to remove those life-draining adverbs and verbs to write drastically better dialogue. Here are my top three tips:

Connotation is your friend

If you’re not using adverbs to describe the way your character says something, then use the connotation of their words to convey their feelings. For example, “I like coffee” has a variety of meanings depending on how it’s said. The character could be ironic, sarcastic, enthusiastic, or anything. Instead of modifying the verb said try modifying the content of the dialogue.

Original: “I like coffee.” She said sarcastically.

Revised: “I guess I like coffee.” She said.

Show don’t tell

Already modified the content of the dialogue as much as you can? Try describing what your character is doing before, during, or after they speak. Grinning, fidgeting fingers, or slamming a door are more telling than happily, nervously, or angrily ever were.

Original: “I like coffee.” She said sarcastically.

Revised: “I like coffee,” she said, picking up the sugar dispenser and holding it above her coffee cup for several seconds.

Play off the other characters

Tapped out on using connotations and showing-not-telling? Want to mix it up? Try omitting said entirely and allow your characters to play off one another. Whether responding directly to each other’s tone or indicating it by their response. Just make sure to set up the scene beforehand so your reader knows who is speaking as they follow the back and forth.

Original:

“I like coffee.” She said sarcastically.
“You don’t like coffee,” he scoffed, “order a tea.”

Revised:

She picked up the up the sugar dispenser and held it above her coffee cup for several seconds.

“I like coffee.”

“Stop being difficult. You’ve never liked coffee. Order a tea.”

Learning to cut adverbs and verbs from my dialogue was difficult and painful process. To be honest, I still catch myself trying to sneak some adverbs or verbs in after said. But if I want strong dialogue and a strong story, I need to drop my ego at the page and let the characters speak directly to the reader. Writers are a vessel for their stories. They shouldn’t interject their thoughts anymore than the paper and ink do.

Citation: Strunk, William, and E. B. White. The Elements of Style with Revisions, an Introduction, and a Chapter on Writing. Longman, 2000.