Anyone who knows me or has followed my blog for a while knows that my most beloved pursuit is writing. Poetry and fiction writing fills many of my days, and I relish the attempt and challenge of producing professional work.
In the desire to write better, and simply because I love it, I consistently turn to my second favourite pastime, reading great books. As with my craft, I prefer fiction over non-fiction, and never tire of immersing myself and my imagination in a good story.
But because I want to improve my ability, I’ve enjoyed some wonderful non-fiction books about the art and craft of writing. Here are a few I have read recently:
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White
I have enjoyed these books, as many have, and highly recommend them as valuable, insightful tools for any writer. The last one in particular deals with the nuts and bolts of good writing: principles of composition, rules of usage, and style.
Which brings me to the point of this blog post. We have always been taught to use proper punctuation in our writing, and I continually strive to do just that. So why have certain authors decided to depart from the rules of punctuation, in particular, omitting quotation marks around dialogue? Well-known writers such as James Joyce and Cormac McCarthy didn’t use quotation marks, and an increasing number of literary authors are following them.
I am reading the novel, February, by Lisa Moore, an acclaimed Newfoundland writer, and she too has dispensed with punctuating her dialogue with quote marks. I love the book so far, am greatly impressed with her style, and have no difficulty differentiating the dialogue from the rest, but I have read some readers do have trouble with it. Cormac McCarthy said he doesn’t like seeing all the “weird little marks” on a page, and that a good writer doesn’t need them.
I also read that it is a sign of a “cool writer”, or a literary writer, to omit such punctuation. I have a suspicion, however, that if I submitted a manuscript without quotation marks around my dialogue, the editor, agent, or publisher would send it back in a jiffy, refusing to even read it. Is it only a right of the well-established to bend the rules this way?
What do you think? As a writer or as a reader, where do you stand on this issue? Does it bother you, or are you fine with it? What style do you prefer in your own writing?
Are there any books on writing you would recommend?
*All books above are linked to Amazon for review. Check them out.
24 thoughts on “What’s Up, Writers?”
I’ve read and enjoyed all three of your how-to books. Got a lot out of each of them, and all different tips.
Quotations marks–that trend hasn’t hit the thriller genre (that’s mine). We’ll let you lit fic writers set the pace for a while, see how it goes. Maybe then…
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I have mixed feelings about the quote marks. Right now I’m reading another one without them – A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews.
Recently when I visited my mother and we were going through some old letters from the 1960s, I found it really difficult to read with all the punctuation. You know, Mr. J.Smith.; instead of just Mr J Smith
Today things read much easier without the punctuation marks making us pause all the time.
These days we have italics and bold and different fonts to make people aware if it is speech or emphasis.
I do believe them to be less clumsy and easier to read than when quotation marks are used.
I never thought I would have said it but I am preferring not to use as many quotation marks and instead put things in italics, especially if the ‘talking’ is inside my head. Ah! I had to use quotation marks there.
And I see that you have empathized in bold, rather than quote marks. 🙂
Ah, an opposing view to the majority! If you read my comments above you will see I came around to your opinion somewhat after reading February. I can see how it works better in some instances, but not all. Funny how our views can change with experience. 🙂
Yes, and I write a whole heap in my journal yesterday filled with quotation marks. It is still more natural when I am not thinking about it. 🙂
Old habits die hard. 🙂
Jennifer, this is such an intriguing post. I found Bird by Bird an encouraging read (and funny). As far as writing rules, I personally plan to follow them unless I feel ‘the story’ would suffer for it (and of course I will break some unawares–until an editor sets me straight). Happy writing!
Blessings ~ Wendy ❀
Hi Wendy. I finished February since I wrote this post, and I am now of the opinion that the absence of quotation marks adds to the introspective feel of the book, and I didn’t miss them. So I suppose certain books can indeed get away with it.
Thanks for your input. 🙂
Honestly? It drives me mad when there are no quotes. I guess I see them as the idiot marker. Hey numbnuts, I’m talking. not the same as, “hey numbnuts, I’m talking.”
Ha! You have a good point, Ionia. I mean, why mess with something if it ain’t broke?
I definitely prefer the quotation marks Jennifer. Honestly writing has changed so much even since I was a kid. I can still remember long sentences, with semi-colons and way more commas than people use these days, that were the length of a paragraph, i.e., Jane Austen style!
Now people use shorter sentences and sometimes they aren’t even complete sentences. Incidentally, that is how I pretty much write – in a conversational style. I read it out loud to see if it flows easily off the tongue. However, I’m not writing a book. 😉
What I do know is that when I’ve read Jane Austen out loud, I struggle to catch my breath!
I prefer somewhere in between, employing both long and short wherever I think it fits the situation or mood. And I like sentence fragments. Like this! Creative writing shouldn’t be stifled by too many rules, but quotation marks make sense. 🙂
You know… come to think of it. I like short crisp sentences. Then, every now and then, I will add a long run-on sentence which seems to give what I’m writing a musical or rhythmic or playful feel. 🙂
Jennifer love this post I am going to check out the other two books as I am reading The Elements of Style at the moment. My problem being I struggle with grammar and punctuation, it does not come easy for me. I believe I need to learn it though and will strive to put up my best work. Learning new skills is a gift within itself. Its the age old saying learn the rules so you can break them.
Thanks, Kath. You might also want to check the books that Melene mentioned above. Brushing up on skills or learning new ones are definitely worth it, no matter what form of writing we attempt.
Yes, the saying about learning the rules so we can break them came to my mind too. 🙂
Great topic, Jennifer! As a writer and reader, I love the punctuation. It helps add tone, hesitation, and emotion to the words. I’ve read several books over the past year that abandoned all punctuation, and they usually end up in my ‘discontinued’ pile. Especially as a reader, I don’t like it. It’s confusing and feels endless to me, so I appreciate a good quotation mark 🙂
Yes, Caitlin, I am inclined to agree with you. If I had to decide on sticking to one style, I think I would go with traditional punctuation. At least that’s how I feel about it now, but who knows? Maybe someone will talk me over the other way one day. Ha ha!
Thank you for weighing in, sweetie. x
Hi Jennifer. I recently read the LaMotte and King books, too. (Read White a loooooong time ago in journalism classes.) I agree that only well-established writers can get away with breaking punctuation rules. Anne Dillard did weird things with quotation marks in one of her books I read recently. It did sort of bug me. Will literary chaos ensue? I don’t know….
No, I don’t think chaos will ensue, but I wonder what the majority of well-published writers think. The established among them also don’t have to worry about hooking the reader with the first page (like many of us do).
Then there’s the UK use of em dashes to signify dialogue. All very confusing. 🙂
Thanks for your comment, Marie!
I agree with a lot of what you wrote. I have mixed feelings about punctuation. I tend to be strict with myself, but I am allowing for new style and creativity. Regarding what I would recommend to an aspiring writer: I would include this post. Thanks!
You are very welcome. 🙂
My feelings are mixed too. And like you, I allow for individual style. I’d love to know what other successful authors think of it. Thanks for commenting!
Brenda Ueland ‘s If You Want to Write is great. So is Lynda Barry’s What It Is and William Zinsser’s On Writing Well . I’m going to check out Stephen King’s book.
Thanks for the recommendations, Melene. I will certainly check them out. Stephen King’s book has lots of advice in the first half, with the second half more of a memoir.