The Powerhouse Of Writing 5: Quotation Marks

The Powerhouse Of Writing 5: Quotation Marks

In our fifth post on the powerhouse of writing, we look at how quotation marks can strengthen your writing.

The Powerhouse of Writing 5: Quotation Marks

As a writer, you must know more than your ABCs, fancy words, or stylish phrases. You also need to know how to relate those words to your reader. That’s where punctuation kicks in.

Building on our successful series Punctuation for Beginners,  we will now look beyond the grammar rules. Did your teachers tell you that those punctuation marks are the true powerhouse of writing? They can supercharge your text if used correctly.

Today, we’ll look at quotation marks and what they can do for you (if you need a recap on the basics, please read All About Inverted Commas first).

The Power Of Quotation Marks

Quotation marks, or inverted commas, can be used as single or double marks. It’s a matter of your cultural background and your style sheet.

When you put a sentence in quotation marks, you automatically infuse it with a special kind of power. Those little marks show a beginning and an end. It’s how you set a sentence apart from your text.

That alone tells readers that whatever is enclosed deserves special attention. After all, why else would you set this sentence apart?

You make readers pay attention to the following things:

  1. The typography of the sentence (direct speech often requires a new line).
  2. The tone of the sentence (it changes).
  3. The meaning of the sentence.

Let’s look at these more closely.

Making A Sentence Stand Out

Just look at the headline above. It’s also made to stand out. By using bold type and bigger font, I am telling you that this is a heading, so you know what to expect in this paragraph. Quotation marks do similar things but in a more subtle way and to a different effect.

Since quotation marks always come in pairs, readers take this as a sign of when to switch on their special attention, and when to switch it off. Sometimes, sentences in quotation marks even start a new line (as in direct speech).

So, why do some sentences call for special attention? Because the author changes one, or both, of these things:

  1. The tone of the sentence.
  2. The meaning of the sentence.

Let’s explore the tone first.

The Magic Of Direct Speech

Quotation marks change the tone of a sentence by turning it into direct speech. The change of speaker is often even reflected in our reading voice. When that happens, writers create a special kind of magic on the page.

Direct speech enriches the voices of the text, shows characters in action, and encourages the reader. Content suddenly becomes more interesting. Sounds good? Then let’s look at this in more detail.

Turning A Single Singer Into A Choir

By using quotation marks to create direct speech, the voice of the narrator is joined by other voices. Suddenly, the tone becomes more conversational. It’s like talking directly to readers.

If writers can imitate speech patterns well, then they can get very close to their readers. The goal is to turn the text into a conversation between the narrator, the characters, and the readers. Even if the readers are just silent witnesses to this conversation, they find that very engaging!

And…Action!

By giving room to the characters of a story, quotation marks enable the writer to show his cast in action. Readers witness the action first-hand, instead of sitting in the backseat (it’s showing instead of telling).

This feeling of being there on the spot is the best way to make your story lively and interesting. All writers must do is make sure the readers always know who’s speaking. So, don’t forget to place dialogue tags.

Dialogue Relaxes The Reader

Dialogue has an added benefit. Look at the way dialogue presents itself on the page. Typographically, the text is no longer a solid chunk. Dialogue is like a fresh breeze going through the text.

By setting the dialogue apart from the main body of the text, the writer creates white space.

White space gives the readers plenty of opportunities to breathe and relax (If you wish to recap on why this is important, please read The Powerhouse Of Writing 1. The Full Stop). White space makes it easier for the readers to make progress. This encourages readers to go on reading. What more can writers want?

The Danger Of Quotation Marks In Direct Speech

Here’s the hitch: You do need to have something to say. Characters should not prattle on; it must all contribute to the plot. Not even quotation marks can create a plot.

The other danger is that quotation marks can be part of the general problem of punctuating dialogue (here’s just the article to help).

Quotation Marks Create Meaning

Earlier on, I promised that quotation marks can even create meaning. Just look at the following sentences:

Example 1: There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark.
Example 2: “There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark.”

(Shakespeare)

Example 1 is a factual statement about something that decomposes in the European state of Denmark. Example 2 is meant figuratively, indicting foul play by using the famous quotation from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet.

Example 2 shows how quotation marks set up a connection between an author’s sentence to an outside context (the quoted author, Shakespeare). Quotations can be used to underline what we want to say (we’re citing evidence) or to distance ourselves from a controversial statement by citing another author.

The latter effect is also used when we use quotation marks to show that something is dubious or inappropriate. We simply use them to signal that this is not our comment, but someone else’s (very convenient if you want to shed responsibility).

This practice is so much part of our language, that air quotes have even become part of our body language. Let’s look at an example: 

Example 1: She thanked him for being such a big ‘help.’
Example 2: He told her there was ‘nothing’ to it.

Through quotation marks, we know at once that the man has not been a great help. It’s meant ironically. The man in our example retaliates by using quotes as well. We know that ‘nothing’ is, in fact, quite the opposite, it is ‘something.’ Can you see how the quotation marks here completely change the meaning?

As readers, we understand this because we know the convention. If quotation marks only make a single word stand out, then they usually show hidden meaning.

The Last Word

I hope you’ve enjoyed this way of looking at quotation marks. Have I encouraged you to use more dialogue? Great! It does work wonders for writers.

Next in our series, I look at the gentler tools of pacing: colons, semicolons, and dashes.

Have fun writing!

Further Reading

  1. The Powerhouse Of Writing 1: The Full Stop
  2. The Powerhouse Of Writing 2: The Comma
  3. The Powerhouse Of Writing 3: The Exclamation Mark
  4. The Powerhouse Of Writing 4: The Question Mark
  5. The Powerhouse Of Writing 5: Quotation Marks
  6. The Powerhouse Of Writing 6: Colons, Semicolons, & Dashes

Susanne Bennett

By Susanne Bennett.

Susanne  is a German-American writer who is a journalist by trade and a writer by heart. After years of working at German public radio and an online news portal, she has decided to accept challenges by Deadlines for Writers. Currently she is writing her first novel with them. She is known for overweight purses and carrying a novel everywhere. Follow her on Facebook.

More Posts From Susanne

  1. The Powerhouse Of Writing 4: The Question Mark
  2. The Powerhouse of Writing 3: The Exclamation Mark
  3. The Powerhouse of Writing 2: The Comma
  4. The Powerhouse Of Writing 1: The Full Stop
  5. How To Play Surrealist Word Games
  6. How To Write Surrealist Poetry
  7. What Is Automatic Writing?
  8. Surrealism – What Every Writer Should Know
  9. How To Write Without Your Muse
  10. Why You Should Love Doing A Rewrite

Top Tip: Find out more about our workbooks and online courses in our shop.

Posted on: 12th September 2022
(3,578 views)