You may be thinking that direct quotes belong exclusively in fiction. The truth is that you read either dialogue or direct quotes in non-fiction all the time—from news articles to blogs to books.
Here’s an example from the CNN website. South Bend mayor and presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg is talking about his husband.
“Pete Buttigieg told CNN’s Van Jones last month that his husband has been good at rolling with the ups and downs of constant travel.
‘(Chasten) was really alive to the ways we could use our visibility to help people, to make people feel better just by showing up at their event, things like that, and he’s taking that same attitude on the trail. He travels with me about half the time and he definitely got more than he bargained for,’” he said.”
In technical terms, this is not true dialogue since one person is speaking. However, the interview’s questions are implied. Sometimes questions give context to a story. At other times they may slow its pace.
Note that single quotes go inside double quotes.
Make It Real
The above quote provides the reader with a close look at the relationship of a candidate and his spouse. It also gives the feeling of what a political campaign is like. It tells a story, and readers love stories.
If you were writing about the struggles of small entrepreneurs, you could pepper your text with charts and statistics. These have their place, but they don’t convey emotion. They don’t help your reader identify with these struggles.
In this example, showing the question adds to quality of the story.
“I asked Martin Engleman, founder of an advertising startup, what his greatest difficulty was.
‘Every day is a battle,’ he said. ‘I have to work ten to twelve hours a day, including weekends, to stay above water. The cost, though, is crushing. I always wonder if the day will come when I walk into the house, and the kids don’t know who I am. I ask myself sometimes if it’s worth it.’”
Here’s another example. A woman and her son discuss a malpractice case they are waging against a physician they say prescribed a harmful drug for her.
“Margaret McBride, who is now bedridden because of the major stroke she claims the drug caused, says, ‘I knew right away that something was wrong. It felt like my body was shutting down. I had just enough time to call Tommy.’
‘I came into the house, and she was half-fallen out of the bed, the phone still in her hand,’ Tom McBride says. ‘Her little dog sat beside her, whimpering.’”
Description can add to the immediacy of a narrative. If I were writing this for an actual story, I would add more descriptive details. In the first example, Martin Engleman might look thin and have a facial tic. Margaret McBride could have a pale and wasted arm. Her bed might be by a window that looks out on a garden she can no longer tend.
Direct Quotes Dangers
Too often, writers display beginners’ tendencies when they try to get fancy in this area. “She exclaimed.” “He expostulated.” (Really?) Sometimes people sputter, snarl, rasp, growl until you think you’re at the zoo.
“He said.” “She said.” Yes, it’s boring, but you can break up this repetition in other ways. One is to precede dialogue with an action.
She waved the paper in his face. “Explain this bill from the Holiday Inn.”
He clutched his knee. “Why didn’t you tell me you waxed the floor?”
These actions seem to belong to fiction, but you can use this technique for non-fiction, too.
Fairchild gestured at the stack of bills on his desk. “Until last month, when I lost my biggest client, I had no trouble keeping up financially.”
Avoid meaningless actions
Frank Roberts stirred his coffee. “Sometimes I wish I had never quit my regular job.”
Stirring the coffee and the regular job are disconnected. Also, beverage stirring and pouring activities are more over-used than you can imagine. Consider them clichés.
You might also want to avoid people staring out the window unless you set it up as a deliberate attempt to avoid speaking.
When you make it colorful and appropriate to your subject, dialogue and direct quotes can be some of your best writing tools.
If you liked this post you’ll love 52 Writing Tips: Fast and Easy Ways to Polish Your Writing. Whether you’re a beginning writer, you want to polish your skills, or you need the determination and inspiration to finish a project, this book will help you. It covers a range of subjects from grammar explained simply, how to skillfully edit your work, essentials of blogging, and how to capture and keep a reader’s attention. 52 Writing Tips: Fast and Easy Ways to Polish Your Writing is the guide you’ve been waiting for.
The book includes several chapters on how to polish your writing skills!
Pat Iyer is an editor, author, book coach and ghostwriter. She helps individuals create books that encourages their expertise to shine and advances their businesses. She has written or edited 48 of her own books.