When you curl up with a good book, chances are that it’s conversation-heavy. Who doesn’t love coffee and good conversation, after all? Trying to wade through a story that’s all narrative is so boring, it’s like watching your computer defrag.
I tried to read a Jack Kerouac book once that was worse because not only did no one talk, but Kerouac used little punctuation. It was 300-some pages of the world’s longest run-on sentence. He may have thought he was being unconventional and edgy, but the book was a train wreck. My favorite used-book store didn’t even want it for free.
Conversation adds pep to otherwise banal copy. Features and profiles, such as those you might write about your company’s employees, or success stories that highlight how your products and services solved your customers’ problems, are excellent places to experiment with conversation.
Have some fun with it, too. You don’t have to stick to the traditional he said, she said. Try mixing it up with quotations within quotations or full paragraphs of quoted material. Variety shows off your versatility and helps engage readers.
Quote mark basics
Direct quotes: These are the simplest form of quotations: “Make sure you complete your assignments by Friday,” the teacher said. Robert told his wife, Suzanne, “If you go to the grocery store after work, please don’t forget the eggs.”
Quotes within quotes look like this: “When Bob Marley sang, ‘Man is a universe within himself,’ I think he was right,” Dave said. When an individual is quoting someone else, use single quotes around that content, as in my example. Here’s another one: “Did she ask, ‘What’s going on?’” The quoted material needs single quotes, ‘What’s going on?’ and then a double quote to complete the thought.
Running quotations: Are you getting a visual of quotations growing legs and chasing you in your nightmares? It’s OK – you’re not alone. This term refers to a full paragraph of quoted material that is followed by a paragraph that continues the quotation. Do not put quotation marks after the first paragraph. Do put quote marks before the second paragraph. Here’s how this works:
“Despite the anemic economy, our company will continue with its long-range marketing plans that we developed last year,” CEO Donald Weiss said. “Our social media initiatives, in particular, are on target and surpass what our competitors are doing. We also plan to build on the momentum we’re gaining from our recent website redesign. (No quote marks here, but use a quote to kick off the next paragraph.)
“Furthermore, our management team is investigating a possible overseas expansion that would include our partners in China, France and Germany,” Weiss added. “This untapped potential could open many new doors for us in terms of market penetration and industry competitiveness.” (The CEO is finally done talking, so you need a quote mark to complete his Very Important Points.)
Unfamiliar terms or irony: Put quote marks around these so they will stand out for readers. She tried to explain what she meant by “knowns” and “unknowns.” Now for irony: The “debate” turned into a free-for-all.
Dialogue or conversation: No matter how many people are speaking and no matter how brief their thoughts are, place them in separate paragraphs, with quote marks at the beginning and end of each person’s comments:
“Will you go with me to Glade Creek?”
“No, I’ll pass.”
“Would you like to go to Lewisburg instead?”
“Let’s go now.”
Avoid fragmented quotations: Don’t use quote marks for a few ordinary words. This sentence is incorrect: The tea party candidate said he would “go home to Florida” if he lost the election. Here’s the correct usage: The tea party candidate said he would go home to Florida if he lost the election. (No quotes.)
Quoted material in headlines: Put single quote marks around any words that you pull from a story. Say you wrote a headline for a story about former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and the copy contained this quote: “I will be glad to testify during my retrial. In fact, the truth will come out when I do.”
The headline would be, Blagojevich: ‘The truth will come out’ at retrial.
That covers most of what you need to know about quotes. If you need help with any copy that falls outside my examples, I’ll be happy to help you sort it all out.