Monthly Archives: January 2013

Quotation Marks And Where They Belong

Trunk or BootBy and large, English is English regardless of which English-speaking country a person is from. There are, of course, various words that take on different meanings in different locations, but English grammar remains fairly constant. Quotation marks, however, are a different animal. There is more variation with use and placement of quotation marks than perhaps with any other English language guideline.

In this article, I’ll primarily deal with the American usage and placement, with an occasional note contrasting the difference with what is commonly referred to as the British style. For writers interested primarily in the latter, I refer you to The Oxford Guide to Style.

As you might expect, quotation marks are most commonly used with quoted material. In fiction this means in dialogue.

[Editor’s note: My apologies for the backwards closing quotes in the upcoming sections. Apparently if I use the code to create a red font, the quotation marks curl in the wrong direction. I decided more was gained by using the change of color than was lost by the backwards curl.]

    Example: Should I pack your blue shirt as well as the white one? she asked.

Note, there is a difference between dialogue and “indirect discourse” in which no quotation marks are required. In dialogue, the exact words of the speaker are quoted and therefore placed inside quotation marks. In indirect discourse, the speaker’s words are given in summary, rather than in the precise language he used, and therefore are not placed inside quotation marks.

    Example 1 (a line of dialogue): I’ve seen enough, he said.
    Example 2 (indirect discourse): He said he’s seen enough.

In nonfiction using quotation marks with quoted material means quoting another source in support of a point or to offer contrast to a particular view.

    Example: The author advanced his argument by saying, Act 3 begins in the next logical point on that journey.

The placement of the closing quotation mark is always after a comma or a period. Placement in regard to other punctuation marks varies based on whether the mark belongs to the sentence at large or to the quoted material. (Placement when using British English varies from these guidelines.)

    Example 1 (period always inside the closing quotation mark): She gave him an odd smile and said, I wouldn’t eat that if I were you.
    Example 2 (comma always inside the closing quotation mark): If you finish early, you may go, the teacher said with a wink.
    Example 3 (the question mark belongs to the quoted material): Her new mantra is Must you always go?
    Example 4 (the exclamation point belongs to the entire sentence): How shameful if he had to say, I can’t finish!

Quotation marks may also be used in “unspoken discourse,” commonly called interior monologue in fiction. Such discourse would also include silent prayer or telepathic conversation. When conveying any of these unspoken thoughts, the author may choose to use quotation marks or not. Note, however, that placing these in italicized type is not a standard practice according to the Chicago Manual of Style. (For more information on italicized type, see “Italics And When Not To Use Them.”)

Another common use of quotation marks is with titles of non-freestanding works such as articles in newspapers, magazines, or on blogs; individual sections of books; short stories; poems; and the individual title of an episode of a TV show.

The placement of the closing quotation mark follows the same guidelines as with other uses.

Occasionally quotation marks are required within a quotation. In that case single quotation marks, like this, are used. (Note: British style reverses the order, using a single mark predominantly and employing the double mark when needed inside a quotation.)

Example: Did Mr. McGuyre tell us to read Fog by Carl Sandburg or The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost? David whispered to the girl sitting next to him in the library.

Lastly, novelists may wonder about using quotation marks with epigrams, generally quotes from someone real or fictitious, placed before a chapter or section of the book. In this specialized use of a quote, quotation marks are not used.

Feel free to ask questions in the comments section if I didn’t cover something you’d like to know. Happy quoting. 😀



Filed under Quotation Marks

Going For the Participant’s Certificate

London_2012_Olympic_Games_MedalsSome while back, educators got the idea that all students needed to be recognized, not just the exceptional ones. Youth sports especially seemed enamored with this idea, so race entrants and members of Little League teams all received participant certificates, no matter how they performed.

Undoubtedly there is validity in recognizing the fact that someone stuck with whatever they set out to do and finished. But few contestants actually aim to win a participant’s certificate. Most have some other goal in mind. Perhaps they play because they’re having fun. Or maybe they want to improve so they can succeed at the next level. Maybe they’re doing it for the exercise.

In contrast, in the writing community I think too many people are working for their participant’s certificate–a published book. I suggest there should be a greater reason for writing a book than simply holding a paperback with your name as the author or seeing it on the cover of an ebook. As thrilling as that may be, in this day and age with self-publishing being easy and inexpensive, the finished product is little more than a participant’s certificate. Writers can do better.

First, determine why you want to write and publish a book. If the answer is, “To cross it off my bucket list,” then you’re going for the participant’s certificate. If, however, you want to build self-discipline, improve your writing skills, develop perseverance, these are noble and good goals–they will be their own reward.

If, on the other hand, you want to write because you have something you want to say, then your audience is your reward. This audience doesn’t have to be big, in the same way that not every race is part of the Olympics. But the point is, you’ve determined you want to speak into the lives of other people–to tell them something you believe, either through story or fact-based prose.

If this is you, then you are separating yourself from the pack, but how do you actually get the job done? I mean there are lots of people wanting to win an Olympic gold medal who end up getting participant certificates in lesser races than the Olympic trials. There are even people who would like to play high school ball but who don’t make the final cut.

So you who are setting your sights higher than a participant’s certificate, here’s the game plan.

First, study.

There are great resources available to those who want to learn how to write well. For example, Writer’s Digest magazine continues to provide invaluable information–from tips about how to start a novel to mastering pace and avoiding story mistakes. There are also numerous writing instruction books (see a list of those I recommend on the Resources page here at Rewrite, Reword, Rework) and any number of writing-tip blogs such as this one.

Another avenue a writer can take is to attend conferences where you can learn from professionals teaching workshops on various craft issues.

Of course there is also the more formal route–many community colleges offer creative writing classes and there are schools that have programs in which a student may earn an advanced degree in writing.

The key in this first step is for the writer going for more than a participant’s certificate to accept that you do in fact need to learn and then find the way to do so that works best for you.

Second, write.

Many instructors would put “read” in first or second place on a list such as this. I am not discounting the value of reading. However, a writer writes. At some point, a person with the aspiration to write so that others will read what you have to say, must write.

I suggest starting with projects that will give you a sense of accomplishment and some objective feedback. Writing exercises (a number of writing instruction books include these) give the practice and may provide the sense of accomplishment. Take advantage of writer prompts such as Writer’s Digest makes available. Watch for writing challenges like the one Speculative Faith recently held. Enter short story contests or beginning-of-your-novel contests. Joining a critique group is another way to keep you writing as well as to give you objective feedback

Third, revise.

No matter how much a writer learns or how much feedback you receive, none of it will make a difference unless, you take all the input and apply it. This means revise what you’ve written. Please note, this is far different from checking your spelling or making sure your commas are in the right place.

In his excellent article on rewriting, agent Steve Laube quoted from an interview with Earnest Hemingway in which he said, “I rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.”

I don’t doubt that there are some brilliant writers who can get it right the first time they put their thoughts into words and type them onto the screen of their computer, but I tend to think they are the exception to the rule. In fact E. B. White has been quoted as saying, “It is no sign of weakness or defeat that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery. This is common in all writing and among the best of writers” (from “Rewriting/Quotes by other writers”–emphasis mine).

Too many writers starting out do not want to accept this step. The idea that they have spent weeks, even months, getting a story down, and then must turn around and tear it all apart and do it over, seems ridiculous and definitely too hard. I used to hold this view myself. Wouldn’t it be better just to write it right the first time?

The problem is, it’s really hard to tell if it’s right until the whole thing is down. Only then can you see if your characters are properly motivated in every scene, if their voices are unique, if you have the tension you need on every page.

The fact is, stories are complex and nonfiction requires order and transition and logic. These are things that are hard to keep track of in the midst of getting the content down. And of course we haven’t begun to talk about syntax or word choice.

Last step, read.

Yes, do read, particularly in your genre. Read the best writers and the most popular ones (not always the same) so that you can get a glimpse where you fit, so you can learn how those writers handled the things with which you’re grappling.

2012_Olympics_Gold_MedalWhy be content with going for a participant’s ribbon when you can reach for the writer’s greatest prize–readers who will read what you’ve written. Study, write, revise, and read, putting yourself on a path to win an audience, your own particular gold medal.

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Filed under Writing Inspiration, Writing Process

Where To Start

At the beginning of a new year, thoughts turn to fresh starts. More people create bucket lists, start exercise programs or new diets, and make promises to stop smoking or staying up too late.

For writers, the new year is a good time to do a re-evaluation, too, or to start a new project. If you’re in the latter category and are planning to write that book you’ve been thinking about, I suggest keeping in mind a couple basic points.

  • Avoid jumping on bandwagons. If you’ve read a really good story about a boy wizard, a vampire, or a mermaid, I suggest you look for a different concept and avoid joining in with any number of others who might think they want to write about about those characters after reading the same books. If you’ve seen a successful movie about a hobbit, it’s not the best idea to write a book about a hobbit. If you’ve watched a cool TV program about fairytales, it’s not the best idea to write a retake of a fairytale. Why?

    For one thing, agents and editors will not look at your work as if it is fresh and original. For another, it is harder to make your work stand out above others trying to do the same thing you’re trying to do.

  • Avoid copying trends. This is a correlation to the first point. Because a certain genre is hot or because editors or agents say they are looking for this or that kind of book, this is not the time to start writing those books. For one thing, you well may be starting out when other writers who aren’t chasing trends but are writing to their natural bent, are finishing up. In other word, by the time you read that something is the new “in” genre, it’s probably too late to start a project in that genre.

    For another, by chasing trends, you may well write something that you aren’t particularly qualified to write. For example, if you hear that middle grade boy fantasies are the next hot thing, replacing young adult dystopian fantasy, you may not be well versed in what the differences are between middle grade and young adult books. You may also have a sharp learning curve to write straight fantasy as opposed to dystopian fantasy.

    None of these are impossible, of course. But if a writer is chasing a trend instead of trying to start one, he’s behind the pack at the start.

  • running marathonDon’t sign up to run a marathon simply because you’ve started walking the track. In other words, don’t set your sights too high too soon. Nothing can discourage a writer more than getting into a project only to find out that it is much more demanding than what he anticipated.

    The cure for this, of course, is to do your homework. If you decide you want to self-publish a book, then do the research to learn what all is involved–both in time, expertise, and money. Can you afford this project? Do you know enough about book covers and editing and promotion to make this work? Or can you afford to hire professionals to do what you cannot? With your other responsibilities, will you have the time to complete the project?

  • Study writing. Too often those who wish to write don’t realize that different types of writing require different skills. One of the best writers of non-fiction I know decided to write fiction. Unfortunately this author did not take the time to study fiction technique and the result is … less than successful.

    The point is, success in one area should not blind a writer to the need to do the hard work to learn the components of a new type of writing. For most of us, fiction is a new type of writing. We may have read stories all our lives, but we haven’t written fiction. We may have written blogs, articles, reports, letters, and emails all our lives, but those are not stories. Hence, we need to study what makes good fiction if we want to write a novel.

  • Continue to learn no matter how much success you have. One of the best professional basketball players in history used to spend his summer working on a new shot or move so that he would have something new in his arsenal for the new season. No matter how many championships he won, he continued that approach. The man was a millionaire, and he had wide acclaim from his peers and fans, yet he was not satisfied with what he’d accomplished in the past and knew that he had to master greater skills if he wanted to stay at the top.

    Unfortunately, it seems too many writers make getting published their goal, and once they have published, even if they self-publish, they relax. They no longer work to improve because they are satisfied. They make no effort to expand their audience or win others over by their improving writing skills.

  • Think past the obvious. Rather than settling for the first story idea that comes to you, push yourself to think of other possibilities. Rather than using the first descriptive word that comes to mind, look for something more interesting, specific, or unique.

    In the third point above, I originally wrote “Don’t bite off more than you can chew.” It’s a familiar phrase–a cliché actually–but it communicates the thought I wanted. However, its very familiarity would most likely make it forgettable. Creating a new comparison has a greater chance of not only showing the principle, but of becoming memorable.

What tips do you have for writers who might be thinking of starting a new project?


Filed under Concept And Development, Writing Process