Tricks of the Trade: Addressing Counterarguments

In the first Tricks of the Trade article, “Technique Number One: Imagine and Project a Reader,” we discussed how all good writing begins with writing for an actual reader.

Here is one important point about that reader: sometimes, your reader will come across some point you have made and think, “Wait—I disagree with this point!” If the reader is left to his own devices, his own counterarguments will convince him that your arguments do not work. When this happens, the writing—which should convince the reader of your view—only serves to further entrench the reader in his own view.

How can you prevent this from occurring? Simple: Take on those counterarguments in your writing. Do not ignore them. Confront them. Tackle them. If you don’t, these counterarguments will destroy your desired effect: convincing the reader.

The difficult part is finding those counterarguments—and doing so before your reader does. Generating these hypothetical counterarguments requires a degree of imagination, and maybe a degree of research. It certainly requires a degree of empathy—and, harder yet, empathy for those who disagree with your position. Admittedly, this level of empathy can be a difficult quality to attain. Fortunately, though, there are some approaches to achieving this empathy in your writing so that you can address likely counterarguments.

One great way to come up with counterarguments is to find a friend who will disagree with your points. Show that friend your draft, or even your outline. If, for example, you are writing a paper that expresses a fiscally liberal worldview, find a friend who tends to hold conservative views. Say, “Hey, would you mind reading this, and telling me what you think about some of the arguments?” If you have access to a chat program—like AIM or Skype—you can even record the conversation and transcribe it into notes.

Also, reading responses to online blogs, articles, and similar postings is a great way to find everyday counterarguments. But be careful: the arguments people make are not always very strong, and you want to present counterarguments that are reasonable. For that reason, you may want to consider the articles of experts and professional writers as well. The last thing you want is to insult those readers who disagree with your position by implying, “Hey, I think you—and others who hold your view—would make a horrible argument like the one seen here, an argument that anyone can easily dismiss.”

To present a weak counterargument in this way and then to argue against it is called a Straw Man Argument. It is a type of fallacy—a weakness in the reasoning or logic of an argument. (Logically enough, the name of this particular fallacy is the “straw man fallacy.”) Think about the name: straw man argument. It is the rhetorical equivalent of someone building a man of straw and then defeating it in “combat.” I put “combat” in quotes, because fighting a straw man is not really combat at all, since the straw man does not fight back. To defeat a straw man is to accomplish very little. Likewise, to present a weak counterargument and then to dismiss it is to accomplish very little to win over your reader. Your quest as a writer is not to take convenient swings at straw men; your quest is to slay dragons.

Crafting and Responding to Counterarguments

To support a thesis, the writer must think about counterexamples and counterarguments that could be brought against her assertion. For example, imagine that a student is writing an essay against the discriminatory treatment of Muslims in post 9-11 America. Here are some counterarguments (left column) and the responses to those counterarguments (right column):

Counterarguments

My Responses to Counterarguments

This is what my opponent will say. . . .

And this is how I will respond to the counterargument. . . .

Some Muslims commit acts of terrorism against Christian populations—so why shouldn’t we discriminate against them for the purpose of protecting ourselves? Yes, but some Christians also commit acts of terrorism. Consider the bombings of abortion clinics; this is terrorism based upon a belief or conviction, just like the terrorism of militant Muslims. All terrorism is bad, regardless of who commits it.
We live in a country in which there are very few Muslims in comparison to Christians—why, then, is discrimination an issue with such a relatively small group? Don’t we practice this in elections, to some degree, when the majority wins the day? Discrimination against Muslims in America is an important problem to address, because America is based upon the belief in the religious rights of the individual. If only one person is a Muslim in America, then he should not be discriminated against; this is the freedom of religion that America stands for.

Do you see how this works? Think in terms of an opponent—one who is actively thinking about your assertions. Make up an opponent in your mind and have him criticize your argument. Think about the gaps and seeming contradictions in your argument and how you can account for them with logical responses. Ideally, your writing should be a combination of your own original arguments and your arguments that are in response to hypothetical opponents. Think in terms of these steps:

  1. Introduce and write your thesis: Make your assertion; express your position.
  2. Write out your arguments, and as you do so, think of the ways your hypothetical opponent could argue against your arguments. This step is not actually the first draft of your paper, but prewriting—brainstorming: gathering ammunition for your argument.
  3. Respond to the hypothetical responses. You may even want to write the counterarguments in full within your paper so you can respond to them. One great way to introduce your opponent’s responses is to say:  “At this point, someone might argue X.”

Here are two (of many) ways to pose a counterargument in your writing:

  • At this point, one might argue X; however, X is not the case because Y.

Example: At this point, some readers might argue that some Muslims commit acts of terrorism against Christian populations, and that because of these crimes, Americans have the right to discriminate against Muslims in certain cases; however, if we take this argument as being valid, we would also be permitted to discriminate against Christians for the terrorist attacks on abortion clinics by a few extreme fundamentalist Christians. When all is said and done, we should discriminate against neither Christian nor Muslim for the acts of a few extremists.

  • At this point, some might argue X, and they would be right if Y. However, Y is not the case here. So, X must be erroneous, at least in this case.

Example: At this point, some may be tempted to justify discrimination against Muslims, saying that we live in a country in which there are very few Muslims in comparison to Christians—and they would be right if America was not founded upon the principle that we should protect minorities and their beliefs from being marginalized by the majority. I, for one, am thankful that America is based upon the principle of equality, and that people here are free to be the individuals they want to be.

One Last Point: Writing = Conversation

Move away from the notion that writing is simply putting your ideas and assertions on paper. While it does include your ideas and assertions, writing is a quest to win your reader over to those ideas and assertions–and to do that, you must think of writing as a conversation with your reader. Always be aware that your readers are actively thinking about what you are saying and that they are responding to it in their minds as they read. Being aware of this dimension of writing—and responding to it—is the stuff of advanced writing. One essential step to attaining this reader-oriented view of writing is to think in terms of argument, counterargument, and response. Make your reader feel well served by acknowledging other viewpoints and counterarguments that may arise as you make your own argument. As you continue to hone this writing practice, your writing will take on an entirely new level of persuasion and impact.

What better time to start than now?

Next Up:

Counterarguments: Examples from MLK

For purposes of clarity, this article has isolated counterarguments as examples by pulling them from their original context. But now that you know what a counterargument is, the best way to see the full effect of the counterargument is to view it within the context of the larger argument. The next Tricks of the Trade article gives a bit more of that context by sharing counterarguments drawn from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” MLK’s letter, often anthologized as an essay, stands as a powerful example of how the counterargument can act not only as a positive rhetorical feature, but also as the driving force for movement and argumentation within the essay.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Christopher AltmanToolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Tricks of the Trade: Creating Transitions between Sentences

Whenever you shift the discussion in a new sentence, you need to make a clear transition. Never drop your readers. Keep them reading.

But how do we keep them reading? Look at the example below, drawn from a student essay. Notice how these two sentences lack transition:

Many Americans propose that Creationism should be taught in the science classroom. Scientists think it is better suited to the religion or philosophy classroom.

Do you see ways to make a transition here? Here are the three main methods:

1. Combine the sentences into one, and let that single sentence act as the bridge from one point into the next.

Many Americans propose that Creationism should be taught in the science classroom, but scientists think it is better suited to the religion or philosophy classroom.

(The coordinating conjunction but creates the transition.)

Many Americans propose that Creationism should be taught in the science classroom; however, scientists think it is better suited to the religion or philosophy classroom.

(The conjunctive adverb however combines these sentences. It’s similar to but; however, it shows more of a pause than but does. Read the sentence aloud. Do you hear that brief but thoughtful pause?)

Although many Americans propose that Creationism should be taught in the science classroom, scientists think it is better suited to the religion or philosophy classroom.

(The relative adverb although makes the first sentence into a dependent relative clause. This has the same overall effect as but or however, but the sentence is intoned differently. Do you hear it? Has the emphasis changed a bit? What is prioritized in this sentence?)

2. Keep the sentences separate, but put a word or phrase in the second sentence that refers back to the first one.

Many Americans propose that Creationism should be taught in the science classroom. Still, scientists think it is better suited to the religion or philosophy classroom.

(A single word can create a transition. Amazing isn’t it: the difference one word makes?)

Many Americans propose that Creationism should be taught in the science classroom. Despite this position among some religious communities, scientists think Creationism is better suited to the religion or philosophy classroom.

(A phrase or clause may be necessary if you want a more substantial connection.)

3. Insert an entire sentence between the two sentences to connect them.

Many Americans propose that Creationism should be taught in the science classroom. Such proponents include conservative-Christian parents, pastors, and politicians, but—since this is a discussion about science—we should ask what scientists have to say about the issue. The overwhelming majority of them think Creationism is better suited to the religion or philosophy classroom.

(Do you sense a bit more persuasive push here? Consider how the writer created this new tone. Also, apply this longer approach when you want a fully explained transition. Never hesitate to lay out all of the details, if you feel that it is necessary.)

So, do you want to use method 1, 2, or 3? Which one is best?

The answer, as you may have guessed by now, is that there is no best method. The method you choose depends on your intention as a writer and the degree to which you want to connect the two ideas or statements. And sometimes, you should consider unconventional methods, such as the transition I created in this sentence (yes, the one you are reading right now). Notice how I opened that new sentence with the coordinating conjunction and. Although I did not use it to fully combine two sentences (by using a comma + and combination), I started the new sentence with and to create a small reference back to the previous point. There are many other ways to create transition; as you continue to write and to hone your transitions, you will naturally add new transition tools to your writer’s toolbox.

At this point, some readers might be thinking, “Wait–I shouldn’t start sentences with words like and or but! My teachers constantly told me never to do that.” If you picked up this particular writing prohibition somewhere along the course of your life, you have been misinformed. Most people learn this false rule in elementary school or middle school, when such absolute rules held meaning for teaching children the basics of writing. But now as an adult writer, it’s time to progress beyond the rules of childhood writing so that you can embrace the limitless world of true effective writing.

If you feel your writing process being hindered and halted by such rules, you should read my new book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English. It addresses this sentence-starting conjunction myth, as well as many other writing myths learned in childhood. If you’d like to learn more, here’s a link to the book’s introduction:

Two Kinds of Sentence-to-Sentence Transitions: Positive vs. Negative

Here is one additional point to note about sentence transitions: there are two types of connections to make: positive and negative. In the examples above, we have been dealing with a negative connection, or one that shows a contradiction or difference between two points–what we might call but or however points.

Now let’s explore positive connections. Positive connections show the idea of “in addition to” or “also.” Positive transitions show how the two ideas you are expressing are alike. Here is an example:

Pastors and other religious leaders call for the teaching of Creationism in the science classroom. So too do many conservative-Christian parents.

Pastors and other religious leaders call for the teaching of Creationism in the science classroom, and many conservative-Christian parents do this as well.

Pastors and other religious leaders call for the teaching of Creationism in the science classroom; in addition, many conservative-Christian parents call for this practice.

Pastors and other religious leaders call for the teaching of Creationism in the science classroom. Following the example of their religious leaders, many conservative-Christian parents call for this practice as well.

Here are some words and phrases for expressing positive connections:

and     in addition     also     another      as well      furthermore      moreover

Negative: A transition that shows a contradiction or difference between two points. Here are some words and phrases for expressing negative connections:

but     yet     however     conversely     despite     on the other hand     although

So, here is the first question to ask yourself: “Is the connection I hope to show positive, or is it a negative connection?

Here’s the second question to ask: “To what degree (and with what tone) do I want to show this connection?”

Once you have the answer to those two questions, you will know what to do, so long as you remember some of these transition techniques.

Next Up: Dealing with Readers’ Counterarguments

Have you ever been reading an essay or article, and you find yourself disagreeing with what the reader says in a sentence or paragraph? Or did you find that the writer did not address a matter that you thought was important to the discussion? Did the writer’s failure to address such points cause you to disbelieve the writer’s main point? Or, even if you did buy into the main point, were you still a bit less convinced than you might have been, had the writer addressed those nagging points?

Well, dear reader, here’s some bad news: your readers will judge your writing the same way, since they will expect you to address their concerns, doubts, and disagreements—and if you don’t address those matters, chances are, your writing will not achieve full success.

But here’s the good news: there’s a technique for handling these matters in writing, and it’s a technique you can hone with practice. It’s a way not only to redirect the reader’s doubts and disagreements, but also to create even more transition and continuity in your writing. I call that technique “addressing counterarguments.” In fact, for the best writers, addressing counterarguments is often the driving force behind the flow of the writing: the way the writing progresses from paragraph to paragraph, discussion to discussion, topic to topic. Want to learn more? Click the link below.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Christopher AltmanToolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Tricks of the Trade: Creating Transitions between Paragraphs

One key to effective writing is making the prose flow from one part to the next. The reader should never feel like a new discussion or sentence just drops on her out of nowhere. This practice of creating flow is called transition.

Opening Note: As you read this article on transitions between paragraphs, please note that I am underlining my own uses of this technique within this article. Wherever you see an underline, I am pointing out a place where I have made a paragraph-to-paragraph transition.

One important place to create transition is when moving from one paragraph to the next. Whenever you present a new paragraph, frame it as stemming from or acknowledging your discussion in the previous paragraph. This does not mean you should restate the content of the previous paragraph, but it does mean you should at least include some kind of transitional word, phrase, clause, or sentence as you open each new paragraph discussion. The length and depth of your transition depend on how strong of a connection you want to make.

How do we create that connection? Here are three standard ways to accomplish transition between any two paragraphs:

1. Refer back to the previous paragraph. Have the first sentence of the second paragraph refer back to the last sentence of the first paragraph.

2. Project forward to the next paragraph. Have the last sentence of the first paragraph hint at what is to come in the second paragraph. The word hint is emphasized because subtlety works best when applying this approach. This particular approach creates suspense in readers, making them wonder what the writer is going to say next.

3. Both 1 and 2 to create a very strong, fully realized connection. Just be careful not to overstate the connection. (After all, while we do want to be helpful to our readers, we don’t want to insult their intelligence. Balance is the key.)

Written below is at an example of a paragraph break without a transition. Imagine that a student is writing a persuasive essay arguing for the benefits of stem cell research. In the student’s first attempt, the paragraph break is present, but there is no transition bridging the two ideas:

. . . Having looked at the arguments against stem cell research, we see that they are erroneous because the opponents of stem cell research assume that embryonic stem cells can come only from fetuses, which is not true.

Many opponents of stem cell research try to base their arguments solely on religious texts. However, such opponents should consider additional arguments, since many Americans do not believe in those same sacred texts and since religious Americans hold varying interpretations of those texts.

Notice how that second paragraph just jumps out at the reader. While the writer may have seen it coming (because the writer is already familiar with the connections), the reader does not necessarily see those connections. So, with that point in mind, the writer should make a transition for the reader. This transition will be a dependent clause, which is attached to the opening of the second paragraph (the first type of transition listed above):

. . . Having looked at the arguments against stem cell research, we see that they are erroneous because the opponents of stem cell research assume that embryonic stem cells come only from fetuses, which is not true.

     While such opponents ignore scientific facts to oppose embryonic stem cell research, many of those same opponents try to base their arguments solely on religious texts. However, such opponents should consider additional arguments, since many Americans do not believe in those same sacred texts and since religious Americans hold varying interpretations of those texts.

See how that works? Now the first paragraph gives rise to the second paragraph, and the reader has a smooth ride from one paragraph to the next. The ideas now relate, showing unity—but, even more important, the writer has facilitated the reading experience by emphasizing precisely how those paragraphs relate.

Here are some simple words, phrases, and sentences that create transition:

In addition,

Next,

Also,

For example,

For instance,

Now that we have looked at X, we should look at Y.

After having considered X, let’s also consider Y.

Related to this concept of X is Y.

At this point, readers may think Y, so we should consider that point further.

As we have seen, X. This leads us to the next point, Y.

On the other hand, . . .

Now let’s consider a very different example.

etc. . . . There are many more ways to create transition.

No matter which of the listed (or unlisted) techniques you decide to use, always aim to create seamless flow in your writing. Sometimes a single word like also will do fine, but at other times writers will include an entire sentence (or two) to make a transition. No matter what kind of transition you choose to make, always think about your choice, and make a point of being creative.

Finally, when considering how to create transitions, remember that a transition creates one crucial desired effect for the reader: a seamless reading experience, from the first page to the last. This flow keeps our readers doing just what we want them to be doing: reading.

Next Up: Transitions between Sentences

This article has shared some ways to create transition from one paragraph to the next. But equally important to creating flow between paragraphs is maintaining that same level of flow within paragraphs by creating sentence-to-sentence transitions. With that goal in mind, the next Tricks of the Trade article shares a range of techniques for creating constant transition between every sentence you write.

  • Creating Transitions between Sentences (I will have this article posted soon.)

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Christopher AltmanToolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Tricks of the Trade: Techniques All Good Writers Know–Technique Number One: Imagine and Project a Reader

Look again at the title of this article. I describe this writing practice as “Technique Number One” because writing for an actual reader is the driving force behind all of the other techniques discussed in this Tricks of the Trade series. Think about it: as writers, we should create flow in our writing for our readers. We use clear word choices to get our ideas across clearly to our readers. We use parallel sentence structures to help keep our readers on track. Essentially, good writing is all about the effects we have on our readers. Whether we’re making a sentence more concise and logical or making the choice to add a new paragraph discussion, every choice we make as writers is ultimately for the purpose of better reaching and winning over our readers.

But what does it mean to “imagine and project a reader”? It’s simple: when you write, don’t think so much about the many rules you have learned about grammar, spelling, sentence length, etc. Sure, those rules have their place (well, some of them do, anyway), but that place is secondary to a higher purpose: affecting your readers in the way(s) that you hope to affect them. With that larger goal in mind, consider the fact that an actual human being–or group of human beings!–will be reading what you are writing.

Think about who those human beings are. Are they Americans, or are you writing for an international audience? Are they adults, or are they children–or young adults? Do they have college educations? Are they informed on the topic–or do you need to get them up to speed? Are they religious or nonreligious—or is it a mix? What are their social and/or political views? Do they belong to a certain profession? Write with these considerations in mind.

Writing for Your Audience: An Example

In some cases, you will know a bit about your reading audience. For example, if writing an essay for an engineering professor, you know a bit about that audience. You know that your audience is well informed, and you also know the field in which your audience works. So, with that reader in mind, here’s the key question to ask yourself while writing that essay: “What is important to an engineer?” You might also ask yourself the broader question: “What is important to any professor?” With those points in mind, you’d best get your math right, you should present clear diagrams and research, and you’d better not have any typos. (After all, engineers are looking for a close attention to details, and that includes proofreading and keeping the writing typo-free!)

Last, but certainly not least, you will need to produce content that your audience (in this case, an engineering professor) will find intriguing but also one that is based on the lessons learned in the course. One great way to make that essay intriguing would be to go one step beyond what the professor taught you about the topic. If, for example, the professor taught you how to apply hydrodynamics to better understand plumbing installed in a skyscraper, then you might take that concept and apply it elsewhere by writing an essay on the hydrodynamics of underground structures. Would your professor like that move? Would she appreciate you taking what she taught you and applying it to your own areas of interest? Chances are, she would–but there’s also a chance that she would want you to stick with the core material in the course, including the applications. This is where knowing your audience is useful. Did you ever hear her say, “Plumbing is only one example of hydrodynamics at work. I challenge you to think of other areas where we see it.” If she said that (or something close), then it’s safe to say that you kn0w what to write for her.

Ever aware of my audience, I know that many of my readers are not college students. However, the same basic concept applies: if you know your audience, write accordingly. If you are writing to your boss in hopes of a promotion, think about your boss’s expectations. (You might also think about the larger company and its expectations.) If you are writing to a senator asking him to support your cause, consider his platform and his political philosophies. If you are writing a letter to a friend who has lost a parent, then write with your friend’s personality in mind. Think about what makes her laugh. Think about shared experiences that might cheer her up. Think about whether she is the kind of person who desires a show of sympathy in times of loss or whether she just prefers to talk about other (happier) topics. No matter the writing situation, use whatever you know about your reader to win that reader over to your desired effect for the writing.

(A related note for college students: As a professor–and as someone who knows many other professors–I can say that most professors like to see their students take core concepts beyond what is taught in the course. This is one key difference between high-school-level thinking and the thinking we expect to see in college-level work: while professors do want to see students learn facts, those facts are often worthless if they are not applied elsewhere. Most professors are not looking for regurgitation of basics; we are hoping that our students take the lessons of the course to heart and allow those lessons to change the ways that they think about other matters.)

But What if I Don’t Know Who My Audience Is?

In other cases, you will have no clue who your precise audience is, so you will write for a broad audience. Here’s the good news: there are many writing practices that work for all audiences. In such cases, the only assumption you should make is that your reader will be attentive and will try to read your essay fully and carefully. In other words, the one thing you do know is this: your reader is a reader.

So what it is that all readers need and appreciate? The best way to answer this question is to apply the “Golden Rule of Writing”:

The Golden Rule of Writing: Write for others the way that you would want them to write for you.

In other words, think about the kind of reading experience you would like to have when reading. You want to read writing that flows naturally and is easy to read. You want to read writing that is typo-free. You want to read writing that makes intriguing and even life changing points. You want the writer’s jokes to make you laugh (and you want them to be jokes that make you laugh until you piss yoursel—um. . . I mean, that make you laugh yourself silly!). With those points in mind, write to create the very same kind of reading experience you would appreciate if you were the one reading. Chances are, when it comes to basic expectations for the reading experience, your readers are a lot like you. Think about what those readers want, need, and expect–and write accordingly.

This is the number-one rule of all good writing. If you aren’t doing this, you aren’t really writing.

Next Up:

Transition: Making It Flow

As you read about the Tricks of the Trade techniques in upcoming articles, consider how all of these techniques fall under the overarching writing practice of imagining and serving your readers. The next article on creating flow and transition is a good example. As you read about ways to create transition in your writing, consider the reason for creating transition: to serve your readers with the same kind of natural, flowing writing that you would want to read.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Christopher AltmanToolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Tricks of the Trade: Techniques All Good Writers Know–Introduction

In the writing courses I teach at Onondaga Community College, students compose their own persuasive essays, but over the course of the semester, I assign readings of anthologized essays–written arguments that represent the pinnacle of persuasion and power. Such works include many of the essays referenced here, in The Writer’s Toolbox.

One of those essays is “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr. One day, I was rereading MLK’s classic essay, just after reading student essays. With those two (very different) reading experiences juxtaposed, the vast differences between MLK’s powerful, moving prose (prose that almost always brings me to tears as I read, if only for the beauty and majesty of the writing itself) and my students’ work (a great deal of which brings me to tears for altogether different reasons), something struck me–a question I had surely considered before, but one that really hit home for the first time:

“What are the differences between the student essays I’ve been reading today and MLK’s essay? Are there specific, indentifiable techniques that separate average writers from powerful, moving writers?” As I began to consider answers to these questions, I came to realize that it is often these same techniques that separate my A students from my C students.

But what exactly are those techniques? This next Writer’s Toolbox series, “Tricks of the Trade: Techniques All Good Writers Know,” discusses those techniques and how new writers can employ those techniques to profoundly increase the effectiveness of their writing. Trust me: if you’re not using these techniques in your writing, developing them is worth your best effort. That said, most of these techniques are remarkably simple to employ, once you’re aware of them.

Next Up:

Technique Number One: Writing with a Reader in Mind

The first (and most important) technique discussed in this series is to always write with a reader in mind. This is the most important technique because all of the other techniques discussed in this series fall under this larger, overarching goal of writing: to reach our readers. To learn more about how to reach readers with effective, moving writing, click the link below.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Christopher AltmanToolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Punctuation and the Tone-Scape of Writing

In the previous article, “Beyond Commas,” I discussed how using a range of punctuation techniques creates additional tone in writing. When used along with commas, techniques like dashes and parentheses help us avoid a flat, unnatural tone—in effect, allowing us to write with the same nuance and emotion with which we speak.

I have developed an analogy for this practice, and it’s an analogy I share with my students when discussing how punctuation affects tone. I call this concept the tone-scape, and I want to share it here with you, dear reader.

For a moment, forget that we are discussing writing, and think instead about art. Specifically, imagine a painting or photograph of a landscape. Most landscape images consist of three levels of perspective: foreground, middle ground, and background. The foreground might include a tree branch, one that is very close to the viewer’s perspective—so close, in fact, that it is almost in the viewer’s face. Since it is very close to the viewer, this in-your-face branch looks much larger than tree branches in the middle ground. Essentially, the foreground jumps out at us and grabs our attention, even if we are trying to focus on other parts of the image.

The middle ground is where most of the action takes place in a conventional landscape painting. As its name implies, it is in the middle of the image: behind the foreground but in front of the background. The eyes tend to be naturally drawn towards the middle ground.

The background is behind the middle ground, and it appears very small because it is the most distant part from the viewer’s perspective. Oftentimes, if there are elements in the background, those elements are subtle and do not catch the eye quickly. It has the very opposite effect that the foreground has.

Need an example? Look at the image below, and notice that the foreground, middle ground, and background are labeled. (By the way, I drew this myself, so please remember: I’m an English professor—not an artist!) While the image is far from perfect, the items in each part are clear: a bush is in the foreground, blocking part of the house. The house and the tree are in the middle ground, and behind them in the background is a mountain. There is a sense of depth and three-dimensionality, even in this crude image, because the image takes advantage of foreground, middle ground, and background:

In contrast, look at the image below, where everything is flat and two-dimensional. Everything is in the middle ground, and every part sits on one flat line:

Most children draw in the two-dimensional form above, with no items emphasized or deemphasized. As the child grows older, he will learn more about perspective and how to simulate three-dimensionality on a two-dimensional picture plane. Even if he does not become an artist, he will develop a sense that things farther away from us appear smaller and higher than things that are close. Even if it is crudely represented (as my attempts above clearly are), the adult at least attempts to represent perspective and depth.

The trained artist takes the techniques of perspective to the next level. She knows, for example, how to draw a background object with less detail than an object in the middle ground. She knows precisely how to adjust the sizes and proportions of objects relative to their distance from the viewer. In short, she has developed a set of advanced artistic techniques for realistically representing three-dimensionality.

Writing is the same way. When we write, we want to capture a full range of tones and nuances. We do not want to have flat, two-dimensional writing. Most people capture this range when speaking: they know when to inflect, when to raise their voice, and when to speak in hushed tones. We do this instinctively. And that makes sense; after all, we get plenty of practice speaking in our day-to-day lives. However, when it comes to writing, many people have trouble capturing that range of tones: that naturally diverse human voice. They do not know how to emphasize a phrase so that that it jumps out at the reader, occupying the “foreground” of the writing. Similarly, they do not know how to simulate a whispered aside to the reader (nor how to make a sentence or phrase fade into the background of the sentence).

Punctuation is the key to achieving this three-dimensionality. Think of the dash as being the “in-your-face” foreground punctuation. If something is set off in dashes, it is to be read with a bit more passion, force, and tone than the rest of the sentence. Dashes create the foreground of the sentence’s tone-scape.

As in art, the middle ground of the sentence is where most of the action takes place. In other words, most of the sentences we write will maintain a neutral, “middle” tone. This neutral tone is achieved with commas. Commas create pauses in writing, but those pauses are for the most part neutral pauses, although they may drop the pitch slightly at times.

The background of the tone-scape is achieved through parentheses. Parentheses often set off beside-the-point, “by the way” phrases (not coincidentally called “parenthetical phrases”) that might be useful for the reader to know, but hardly make up the most important point in the sentence. In the same way that someone might look into the background of a landscape painting to take in small enriching details, the reader can enjoy the non-essential (but enriching) details contained in parentheses. Parentheses serve another point as well by creating a whispered tone, so you should use parentheses to say the kinds of things you might whisper to your reader (perhaps with a wink and a smile).

The interplay of these three techniques within a piece of writing creates three simultaneously existing layers of emphasis. These three layers of tone are the equivalent of foreground, middle ground, and background that we see in visual art. The difference between the pro writer and the novice writer is precisely the same difference we see between the pro artist and the novice artist: the pro has mastered a diverse range of techniques for representing the real nature of things. While the artist represents landscapes as they are naturally seen by the human eye, the writer represents natural spoken language as heard by the human ear.

Next Up: The Next Series of The Writer’s Toolbox:

Tricks of the Trade: Techniques All Good Writers Know

In the writing courses I teach at Onondaga Community College, students compose their own persuasive essays, but over the course of the semester, I assign readings of anthologized essays–written arguments that represent the pinnacle of persuasion and power. Such works include many of the essays referenced here, in The Writer’s Toolbox.

One of those essays is “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr. One day, I was rereading MLK’s classic essay, just after reading student essays. With those two (very different) reading experiences juxtaposed, the vast differences between MLK’s powerful, moving prose (prose that almost always brings me to tears as I read, if only for the beauty and majesty of the writing itself) and my students’ work (a great deal of which brings me to tears for altogether different reasons), something struck me–a question I had surely considered before, but one that really hit home for the first time:

“What are the differences between the student essays I’ve been reading today and MLK’s essay? Are there specific, indentifiable techniques that separate average writers from powerful, moving writers?” I came to realize that it is often these same techniques that separate my A students from my C students.

But what exactly are those techniques? The next series, “Tricks of the Trade: Techniques All Good Writers Know,” discusses those techniques and how new writers can employ those techniques to profoundly increase the effectiveness of their writing. Trust me: if you’re not using these techniques in your writing, developing them is worth your very best effort. That said, most of these techniques are remarkably simple to employ, once you’re aware of them.

  • Tricks of the Trade: Techniques All Good Writers Know (I will make this article available soon. Stay tuned.)

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman Christopher Altmanproduces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).


Beyond Commas: Replacing Commas with Dashes and Parentheses

If you find that a sentence seems overburdened with commas, try using other forms of punctuation that set things off (like parentheses, dashes, and colons—but only where appropriate).

Consider the first sentence of this article. What if I had expressed every pause with commas, as in the sentence below?

If you find that a sentence looks overburdened with commas, try using other forms of punctuation that set things off, like parentheses, dashes, and colons, but only where appropriate.

So many commas! Like mobs of traders scrambling over the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, these commas create an environment of clutter and confusion. Each comma performs its own task, but through doing so, these commas collide with one another and disrupt the clarity of the sentence—ruining the very effect that commas should evoke. This overabundance of overlapping commas can leave readers confused. In cases like the one above, I consider ways that I can use other forms of punctuation to make the various divisions clear and distinct. (See the first version of my sentence—much better, isn’t it?)

Punctuation Changes Tone

While dashes and parentheses are great techniques for preventing comma confusion, be careful to use the best form of punctuation for the tone you are trying to express. Choosing parentheses over commas is not an arbitrary decision—a random replacement in which you say, “Those parentheses look nice here. What the heck?—I’ll pop one in, just because.” Though very similar to commas when setting off tangential interrupting phrases, parentheses and dashes each serve their own distinct roles in writing.

Here is a brief breakdown of how these forms of punctuation serve unique roles in setting off interrupting or modifying phrases in sentences:

Parentheses: Set off the interrupting phrase in a subtle tone (as if the writer is whispering an inside scoop into the reader’s ear).

Dashes: Set off the interrupting phrase in a spontaneous, almost exclamatory tone—the opposite of parentheses.

If parentheses are subtle and quiet, while dashes are spontaneous and loud, you might think of commas as neutral. They emphasize the words and phrases they set off, but they do so in a calm yet firm tone. With the appearance of a comma there is often a slight drop in pitch, but the overall tone remains neutral.

Consider these forms of punctuation in terms of the scale below:

Punctuation                                      Volume                                    Mood

Dash: exclaimed (almost)                      Loud                                         Bold

Comma: spoken normally                  Neutral                                        Calm

Parentheses: whispered                       Quiet                                    Intimate

Through adding dashes and parentheses to your punctuation toolbox, you can write with a greater range of tones and moods. The writing will no longer have a monotone, “Ben Stein” sound to it. (If you don’t know who Ben Stein is, he is best known for his role as the dull, monotone teacher in the 80s cult classic, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I can hear him now, calling for the absent Ferris: “Bueller . . . Bueller . . .  Bueller? . . .”) Most of us do not speak like Stein’s character—so why would we want to write like that? (I sure don’t!) Developing a diverse range of punctuation techniques is the key to avoiding that dull, flat monotone.

Next Up: An Analogy for Punctuation and Tone in Writing

In my time teaching, I have developed a visual-art analogy for creating a range of tones in writing. Want to learn more? (You know you do–and you also know that you’re hopelessly addicted to my blog.) Here’s the link to that article:

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman Christopher Altmanproduces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).


Brackets: Making Additions to Quotations

Brackets are the square cousins of parentheses. [Brackets look like this.] Use brackets to show insertions of your own language or ideas into a quotation. This way, you stay true to the original source, while having the freedom to adjust the language to make it more stylistically or grammatically fitting to the context in which you are presenting it.

Confusing? An example will serve best. Let’s suppose that you want to quote the following sentence from Judith Ortiz Cofer’s essay, “The Myth of the Latin Woman: I Just Met a Girl Named Maria”:

“I still experience a vague sense of letdown when I’m invited to a ‘party’ and it turns out to be a marathon conversation in hushed tones rather than a fiesta with salsa, laughter, and dancing—the kind of celebration I remember from my childhood.”

How can you share this quote out of its context, while maintaining a clear connection with the original context? How can you subtly answer the larger question of what Ortiz Cofer’s essay is about, while remaining focused on your own reason(s) for sharing the quote?

The answer: brackets! Here’s how to do it:

In her essay, “The Myth of the Latin Woman: I Just Met a Girl Named Maria,” Judith Ortiz Cofer writes about how she “still experience[s] a vague sense of letdown when [she is] invited to ‘a party’ [in America] and it turns out to be a marathon conversation in hushed tones rather than a fiesta with salsa, laughter, and dancing—the kind of celebration [she] remember[s] from [her] childhood” growing up in Puerto Rico.

Listed below are the bracket applications used in the Ortiz Cofer quotation. Also, here’s a color-coded version of the quote. The bracket techniques listed below correspond to the color code, so feel free to reference the color-coded quote to see the examples of these applications:

In her essay, “The Myth of the Latin Woman: I Just Met a Girl Named Maria,” Judith Ortiz Cofer writes about how she “still experience[s] a vague sense of letdown when [she is] invited to ‘a party’ [in America] and it turns out to be a marathon conversation in hushed tones rather than a fiesta with salsa, laughter, and dancing—the kind of celebration [she] remember[s] from [her] childhood” growing up in Puerto Rico.

Brackets can add elements like –s endings to words: Notice that the Ortiz Cofer quote above uses brackets in different ways to adjust the language of the quote. While some brackets set off entire words and phrases, other brackets set off parts of words. For example, consider the first use of brackets in the Ortiz Cofer quote above: the brackets allow the writer to add an –s ending to “experience” so that the verb agrees in number with the pronoun she. To say, “she still experience a vague sense of letdown” is inconsistent because the subject and verb do not match–an error called “subject-verb disagreement.” The –s needs to be added to experience to make the verb align with the subject, she, so that we have the phrase, “she still experiences.” However, since the additional –s ending is not part of the original material, the writer sets it off in brackets: “experience[s].”

Brackets can replace original words or phrases with new language: The next bracket in the sentence replaces I’m with she is to make the quote align with the perspective of the writer who is quoting Ortiz Cofer. Since the writer thinks of Ortiz Cofer as she and not as I, the writer can use brackets to replace pronouns accordingly.

Brackets can insert new words or phrases into a quotation: The inserted phrase “in America” clarifies the sentence for the reader, since that reader does not have the context of the entire essay to explain the point that Ortiz Cofer is commenting on how parties in America differ from parties in her homeland of Puerto Rico. One well placed bracketed insertion allows the writer to highlight that context while sharing the quotation.

Brackets are not needed to add material immediately before or after the quote. Use brackets only for insertions within the quotation marks: After the end of the quote, the writer adds “growing up in Puerto Rico” but does not use brackets to do so. Likewise, before the quote begins, the writer uses the pronoun she to replace the original first-person pronoun, I. When considering bracket use, this is a good technique to consider: at the beginning and end of the quotation, the writer can add parts without using brackets, so long as those changes occur outside the quotation marks. Use brackets only for changes that occur within the quoted material. With this point in mind, the writer can make adjustments to the language of the quote simply by choosing where to begin and end the quotation.

Additional bracket applications

Use a bracketed ellipsis to remove or skip material in a quote: The ellipsis is the three-dot symbol: . . . When it is bracketed, the ellipsis looks like this: [. . .]. One use of the ellipsis is to show that part of a quotation is being omitted or skipped. Some writers simply insert a non-bracketed ellipsis into the quote. Although the non-bracketed ellipsis is perfectly acceptable, it can lead to problems if the writer is quoting a source that frequently uses the ellipsis for other purposes (such as using an ellipsis to show a long pause or hesitation). Using brackets is a clear way of saying, “This ellipsis is mine, and it is not part of the original quote.”

Here is an example of how a writer might choose to include a full quote:

MLK, in his momentous “I Have a Dream” speech, proclaimed, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

And here is an example of how the writer can use the bracketed ellipsis to omit material for concision and efficiency:

MLK, in his momentous “I Have a Dream” speech, proclaimed, “I have a dream that my four little children [. . .] will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

To learn more about the ellipsis and its other applications in writing, click here.

Use brackets to replace errors in the original quote: In addition to replacing words in a quote simply to fit the larger context, you can also use brackets to correct misspellings and other errors. Simply replace the erroneous portion with the corrected version, and frame the replaced part(s) in brackets.

Here is the original quote—a line that a student or essayist might quote from a newspaper article. Notice how the quote contains a spelling error for the homophones there and their:

“Governor Smith told reporters he would gladly answer there questions in time.”

Here is how we can adjust the quote in the larger essay:

The Local Herald reported, “Governor Smith told reporters he would gladly answer [their] questions in time.”

Setting off sic in brackets to point out an error in the original quotation: Inserting [sic] after an error in the quoted material lets the reader know that the original source has a typographical or grammatical error. (Sic, pronounced like sick, is Latin for thus, which essentially means, “Thus it is, as it appeared in the original material.”) With this technique, you can let the reader know that the mistake isn’t yours, while remaining true to the original quote.

So, why use sic when we can simply replace the error with the corrected usage? The answer involves the writer’s purpose: there are times that a writer may want to leave the error visible in the quotation and to use a bracketed sic to point out that the error occurred. For example, writers use the sic technique when writing a critique or rebuttal of an opponent’s argument, since it is a tasteful and defendable way of saying to one’s detractors, “You don’t write with care and precision!” As the writer attacks the arguments of her opponent, she also undercuts her opponent’s credibility by (correctly) pointing out errors. In this sense, brackets serve a special rhetorical function, even as they serve the purposes of clarity and basic mechanics.

Here is an example of using a bracketed sic to indicate an error in the original source:

In Tuesday’s debate, Governor Smith stated, “This is the important question: is [sic] our children learning what they should in school?”

The other approach (discussed earlier) is simply to replace the erroneous word with the correct usage:

In Tuesday’s debate, Governor Smith stated, “This is the important question: [are] our children learning what they should in school?”

Note: Sic is italicized since it is a foreign (Latin) word. Treat other foreign terms this way, unless those terms have been fully integrated as English terms.

Use brackets to place a parenthetical phrase within another parenthetical phrase: If (for some rare [but valid] purpose) you need to place parentheses within parentheses, the way to do that is to use brackets—as seen in this sentence. However, the best advice is to avoid placing brackets within parentheses by rewriting or rearranging the sentence. Many readers, after all, are unaware of this particular bracket technique, so they may become confused by the appearance of brackets within a parenthetical phrase or clause. This is the one bracket application that does not involve quotations.

Here is how the writer might avoid using brackets in the example sentence:

If (for some rare, but valid, purpose) you need to place parentheses within parentheses, the way to do that is to use brackets—as [no longer] seen in this sentence.

(Did you see how—and why—the writer did use brackets in the revised sentence above?)

Next Up: Dashes and Parentheses

As we near the end of “Punctuation Toolbox,” there are two more key punctuation techniques to discuss: dashes and parentheses. And here’s the best part–I saved the best for last! (Now doesn’t that make you want to read on?)

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and Christopher Altmanhosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Quotation Marks And Other Punctuation

Punctuating the end of a quotation can be tricky, especially in American English, where some punctuation marks default to the inside of the quotation marks, while others can be placed outside the quotation marks. The divisions break down into two groups:

Inside Quotation Marks: When ending a quotation, place periods and commas within the quotation marks, even if the period or comma is not part of the original quotation.

Outside or Inside Quotation Marks: However, when ending a quotation in a question mark, exclamation point, colon, or semicolon, place the punctuation outside the quotation, unless that punctuation is part of the original quoted language. If the punctuation is part of the original quoted language, place it inside the quotation marks.

Here is an example of placing a comma that occurs just after a quote:

Paul Harvey concluded with his usual closer, “And that’s the rest of the story,” a line that delights me even now, as I hear it in my mind.

Treat periods the same way–always put them inside:

Paul Harvey concluded with his usual closer, “And that’s the rest of the story.”

Well . . . the period goes inside the quotation marks  in most cases. If the sentence ends in a parenthetical citation, the period goes after the citation. This placement encloses the citation within the larger sentence to show that the citation refers to that sentence. In a sense, the sentence swallows up the parenthetical citation with that period. Look:

The broadcasting legend put it best when he said, “And that’s the rest of the story” (Harvey).

But other than that one exception, the period’s default placement is inside the quotation marks. However, question marks works differently.

If the question mark is not part of the quoted language or dialogue line, place the question mark outside the quotation marks:

Why did Paul Harvey choose to end all of his programs with his signature line, “And that’s the rest of the story”?

However, if the question mark is part of the quoted language, put it inside the quotation marks:

Ed asked, “Don’t you remember Paul Harvey’s radio program?”

Removing Parts of Quotations: Ellipses

When you remove part of a quotation for the sake of efficiency or clarity, use an ellipsis (three dots) to replace the omitted part.

Here’s an example of using an ellipsis to show an omission from a quotation:

First, here is the full text from the quote. I have marked the part that will be omitted in bold:

MLK, in his momentous “I Have a Dream” speech, proclaimed, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

And here is how a writer might omit elements to save space or to get to the point:

MLK, in his momentous “I Have a Dream” speech, proclaimed, “I have a dream that my four little children . . . will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Although a normal ellipsis is allowable for showing omissions from a quote, many writers prefer to put the ellipsis in brackets to show that the ellipsis is not part of the original quote. After all, the original language could have a stylistic ellipsis to show a long pause or a hesitation in speech. Bracketed ellipses allow writers to differentiate between a stylistic ellipsis and an ellipsis of omission.

Here is how to frame the ellipsis of omission in brackets:

MLK, in his momentous “I Have a Dream” speech, proclaimed, “I have a dream that my four little children [. . .] will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

This use of brackets follows the larger rule for using brackets:

Brackets show an insertion of new material into a quotation.

To learn more about the ellipsis and its many applications in writing, click here.

Making Insertions and Replacements within Quotes: Brackets

Writers use brackets to add their own clarifications or adjustments to quotations. Here is an example:

Here is the original quote:

Senator Smith: “I will cast my vote only for laws ensuring that my African-American and Latino neighbors will have the same opportunity that I have enjoyed.”

And here is the quote, adjusted to fit the writer’s third-person perspective of Smith:

Senator Smith stated that he would “cast [his] vote only for laws ensuring that [his] African-American and Latino neighbors will have the same opportunity that [he has] enjoyed.”

Logically enough, the writer should discuss Senator Smith as he and not as I. The brackets show this shift in perspective, while indicating that the writer has adjusted Senator Smith’s original language.

Did you notice how the quote above actually incorporates Smith’s quotation into the writer’s own syntax? The transition is almost seamless, but almost is the key word: the quotation marks show readers where Smith’s quote begins—and where it ends.

To learn more about brackets, read on.

Next Up: More on Brackets

The next punctuation technique explored in “Punctuation Toolbox” is brackets (discussed briefly in the section directly above). Click the link below to learn more.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Christopher AltmanAltman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Quotation Marks: Odds & Ends

Use Block Quotes for Long Quotations

When presenting a quotation that exceeds four lines (that is, the quote goes into the fifth line), use a block-quote format instead of using quotation marks. Do this by setting the quotation off in its own paragraphed section (but do not indent the first line) and by insetting the left margin by one inch. (In Microsoft Word, the indentation feature is located in the “Paragraph” menu.)

Cited below is an example of a block quote. This quotation is from the introduction to my book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, which attempts to explain and debunk writing rules we learn as children but should discard as adults. Notice that, in quoting the material below, I do not use quotation marks. The indentation acts as the quotation framing device in place of quotation marks:

Most children begin their development as writers by being given lists of rules. If you learned these rules, you probably learned them from trusted teachers, most likely during grade school or middle school, but perhaps you learned them as late as high school. If you are still trying to follow these rules, you probably get the sense that following them is often unrealistic—and even damaging—for your writing. You feel a profound sense of relief whenever you write informal, personal prose, if only for the reason that you are able to ignore these rules and write like yourself. You get the sense that journalists and award winning authors have found some secret way around these rules, for such expert writers break these writing taboos quite frequently—and to great effect. You have an overwhelming sense that there is a bigger, better world of writing, but you have an equally large sense that you can never enter that world.

(Note: In these Writer’s Toolbox articles, I use block quotes even for shorter quotations to highlight these examples for my readers. However, in formal writing situations, like college essays or academic articles, follow the standard rule for block quoting.)

If you are interested in learning more about my book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, click here.

Quotes within Quotes

Sometimes, a writer may quote a source that quotes another source. There are two ways to handle this matter: one for short quotations (using quotation marks) and another for long quotations (using block quotes).

For short quotations, use the single quotation mark (the same symbol as the apostrophe) to show the innermost quote. For the overall (outside) quote, use normal double quotation marks. Here is an example:

When speaking on equal hiring practices, Senator Smith invoked the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I, for one, agree with the words of that great civil rights leader who so aptly stated, ‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.’”

Notice how, in the passage above, the closing quotation marks appear to be a triple set of quotation marks. That is not the case: what seems to be a triple quotation mark is actually the inner single quotation mark (to close MLK’s quote) followed by the outer double quotation marks (to close Senator Smith’s quote). If Senator Smith’s quote had continued after the MLK quote, the closing quotation mark sets would be displaced from one another, like this:

When speaking on equal hiring practices, Senator Smith invoked the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I, for one, agree with the words of that great civil rights leader who so aptly stated, ‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.’ I couldn’t agree more with these momentous words, spoken by none other than Martin Luther King, Jr.”

However, if the larger quote exceeds four lines, it should be framed in a block quote. The quote within the quote can then be framed in (normal) double quotation marks, like this:

When speaking on equal hiring practices, Senator Smith invoked the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

I, for one, agree with the words of that great civil rights leader who so aptly stated, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” I couldn’t agree more with these momentous words, spoken by none other than Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King’s words ring true even today, as we pass laws to ensure that American companies will practice fairness and equality in their hiring policies.

Looking at both of these examples, the overall rule is simple: if double quotation marks are already present and the writer needs to include an internal quote, the writer should use single quotation marks for the internal quote. If double quotation marks are not already present (as in a block quote), then the writer should simply use double quotation marks for the internal quote.

If in the rare event that you must include a quote within a quote within a quote, simply alternate between double and single quotation marks for each additional internalized quote. Although this triple-quotation technique is available, experienced writers attempt to avoid these confusing moments by finding some other way to present the quote. Many writers attempt to remove the outermost quotation and simply to share a quote within a quote. Other writers might choose to paraphrase the statement(s). Regardless of the specific approach the writer chooses, the rule of thumb remains the same: good writers strive to create a clear and convenient reading experience for their audiences.

Dialogue Tags and Quotation Marks

A dialogue tag is phrase that opens into quoted language. The quoted language can be part of a quotation or–as the name “dialogue tag” implies, it can be a line of dialogue, framed in quotation marks. The dialogue tag consists of a noun or pronoun (a speaker) and a verb of speaking (or thinking). Dialogue tags are frequent in fiction, but they are not limited to fiction. Any time that we talk about what someone said, thought, or wrote, dialogue tags are useful. Follow a dialogue tag with a comma, just before giving the quotation:

Bob said, “We had better get home soon.”

Lauren replied, “I’m aware, but we have more errands to run.”

“I’m tired,” Bob sighed. “Will I ever make it home?”

“Nope!” Lauren joked.

In the dialogue above, there are several dialogue tags, marked in bold. Notice how dialogue tags are punctuated differently, depending on their placement relative to the lines of dialogue. If the dialogue tag comes directly before dialogue (the most standard placement), the dialogue tag is followed by a comma, as seen in these lines:

Bob said, “We had better get home soon.”

Lauren replied, “I’m aware, but we have more errands to run.”

Notice the dialogue tag in the third line. Notice how a comma takes the place of a period in the first quoted part, since the dialogue tag follows the dialogue material:

“I’m tired,” Bob sighed. “Will I ever make it home?”

In the fourth line, there is no comma between the quote and the dialogue tag because a comma does not replace exclamation points and question marks:

“Nope!” Lauren joked.

But if we reversed the order, we would introduce the quote with a comma directly after the dialogue tag:

Lauren joked, “Nope!”

Next Up: Quotation Marks And Other Punctuation

New writers often struggle with punctuating quotations. For example, should a period ending both a quotation and its larger sentence go inside the quotation marks, like this . . .

Lauren added, “Don’t worry: we’ll get home soon enough.”

. . . or should it go outside the quotation marks, like this . . .

Lauren added, “Don’t worry: we’ll get home soon enough”.

So which one is correct? The next article answers this question–and many more.

  •  I will have this article up and running soon.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Christopher AltmanAltman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).