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Where Are Your Quotation Marks? Thoughts on Writing Experiments

8

November 2, 2014 by Nathaniel Tower

A writer recently provided this response to my criticism regarding her lack of quotation marks:

“I was trying something new.”

My follow-up question:

“Why?”

Before you get upset and label me as some awful traditionalist, let’s take a step back.

First off, I think experimenting is very important for a writer. We must experiment. We must always try to do something new. If we don’t, then we’ll all become formula writers or one-trick ponies. We’ll be like the AC/DC of the writing world–all our stories will be exactly the same.

Now, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just look at the genre writers who make a living doing this. But if you’re a genre writer already making a living, then you probably aren’t reading this blog post.

Back to my follow-up question: Why?

This is not an attack against writers who don’t use quotation marks. Or those who refuse to capitalize letters. Or those who engage in any non-conventional writing styles. I’m actually a huge fan of quite a few novels and stories that defy convention and abandon speech indicators.

Here’s my point: Why are you experimenting? It’s not “why the hell would you ever think that dropping quotation marks would be a good idea.” I’m asking what your purpose is. What you are trying to achieve by doing it this way. If you don’t have a reason why you are writing dialogue without quotation marks, then there’s no logical reason to do it that way.

Everything we do as writers should have purpose. Do you pick your words for no reason? I didn’t think so.

I once dabbled in anti-quotation mark writing. With great success, I might add. My first non-quotation mark story was promptly picked up by a non-paying publisher who has since closed its doors.

I thought my abandonment of convention was brilliant. Holy shit, there’s speech not set off by some type of formal marking. People won’t know what hit them.

But then it hit me. An editor preparing to reprint the story asked, “Why aren’t there any quotation marks?”

I was about to respond, but I realized I had no clue. I tried to come up with an answer. Perhaps it was to signify the uncertainty of the speech, or the timelessness of what the characters were saying. Or maybe I was indicating that this was everyman. Wait. Maybe I was trying to create a closer bond with the narrator. We don’t need no stinking quotation marks to separate us.

In reality, it wasn’t any of those things. It was simply me defying convention for the sake of defying convention. And guess what? It didn’t make the story any better. In fact, it made it confusing and awkward. So I rewrote it, putting the quotation marks back in. My experimental record: 0-1.

That wasn’t the last time I experimented with language or punctuation. I’m always looking to expand on my abilities as a writer. I don’t want to be a one-trick pony. But I don’t want to be different for the sake of being different.

As a writer, you need to experiment. Anyone who tells you to stick 100% to the rules is giving you bad advice. How many famous writers were sticklers for every grammatical and conventional rule? If you look closely, you’ll find the answer is none of them. All writers experiment in their own way. At the end of the story though, you need to make damn sure there’s a reason for the choices you made. Otherwise, you aren’t really experimenting. You’re just being sloppy.

What are some ways you have experimented as a writer? What’s worked and what hasn’t? Share your stories in the comment section.

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8 thoughts on “Where Are Your Quotation Marks? Thoughts on Writing Experiments

  1. Paul Lamb says:

    Grammar, says the writer Emma Darwin, is a tool, not a rule. My stories are filled with sentence fragments. My reason? Because it sounds more natural to the ear. Few people actually speak with proper grammar (and those who do seem like noisome pedants). My narration is supposed to be conversational and graspable. (And I would dearly love to be the one to make “enuf” an acceptable spelling!) I’ve had editors change my stories some (including the editor of Bartleby Snopes, who had me change the ending slightly and vastly improve the point of the story), but NEVER ONCE has an editor objected to my footloose approach to grammar. Because, I think, it works.

    Have you ever tried reading a Saramago novel? It’s hard to tell where one sentence ends and the next begins in his stuff. Granted, what we read is in translation, but I suspect the original Portuguese is just as challenging.

    2014 was the year I was going to teach myself how to juggle. Time is running out. (I did PR in a half marathon today though.)

    Okay, I’ll stop now.

    • Paul, thank you for reading and commenting. I wholeheartedly agree with the idea that grammar is a tool, not a rule. As writers, we have to make our words and sentences work for us. We have to use them appropriately in the context of the story. If the way we are using them isn’t working, we have to adapt. Sentence fragments can be wonderful. So can run-on sentences. So can other ways of breaking “rules.” Ultimately, they need to have some purpose in the larger picture, whether it be for flow, pacing, impact, or whatever.

      Now get out there and juggle!

  2. Gargi Mehra says:

    I blogged about writing experiments recently too, though my experiments are more centered on story structure. I am currently writing a story in a list-form, and enjoying it! Even if it means a ton more rewrites to get it perfect.

    • Thanks for the comment. Experimenting can definitely be rewarding. Most of my own experiments are on subject matter rather than structure. But I think it’s important for every writer to try different things now and then.

  3. neilserven says:

    I can’t honestly call them experiments, because other authors have done them before me. I once published an all one-sided dialogue story in the manner of David Foster Wallace, with ellipses to replace the other person’s words (which would then be easy to interpret based on context and the first character’s reaction).

    I eliminate quote marks sometimes, especially when I’ve got a more passive-ish narrator/protagonist who might be gliding through a scene and conflating what he receives with his own thoughts.

    Once I wrote a story based on song lyrics that were stuck in my (read: my character’s) head. I called it “Earworm.”

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