The road to book publication begins with a single word, and then a collection of them, followed by a punctuation mark. While the acquisition of a variety of skills are necessary for the successful career author, getting punctuation right is a good place to start.

Career authors seek clarity in writing. To keep readers fully engaged, prose should be free of distractions. That means getting rid of wacky punctuation.

Previous posts have dealt with prevalent punctuation gremlins like commas and em dashes, but years of editing manuscripts have revealed to me other trends of punctuation gaffes—specifically involving quotation marks and question marks.

The following rules are not comprehensive, but they address all-too-common mistakes that can prevent a seamless reading experience.

Question marks

1. Capitalize the word following a question mark.
Sounds easy, but questions do arise

No: Who should read my manuscript? an agent? an editor? my aunt Dee?
Yes: Who should read my manuscript? An agent? An editor? My aunt Dee?

2. Indirect questions end with a period.
Violations of this rule are frequent. Statements containing questions are sometimes erroneously ended with a question mark.

No: She wondered if she should read at her book event?
Yes: She wondered if she should read at her book event.

3. If you are quoting someone asking a question, the question mark goes inside the quotation marks.

“What do you share and how much should you promote?” asks Deanna.

4. However, if quoted material is part of a question, the question mark goes outside quotation marks.

Do you agree with Brian’s points in his post “Subtext: What Lies Beneath”?

This brings us to quotation marks, a writing territory littered with punctuation corruption.

Quotation marks

5. When quoting word for word, use double quotation marks.

“Give me your best shot,” said the literary agent.

It gets more complicated.

6. When a quoted passage goes on for more than a single paragraph, start each new paragraph with opening quotation marks. However, don’t use closing quotation marks until the end of the quoted material.

“No idea seemed original, world-changing,” said Brian. “So, I would give up on each one and try to find something better, bigger, grander.

“For me, the hang-up was the twist.”

Note the purposeful omission of a quotation mark between the example’s first and second paragraph.

7. Use quotation marks to identify pieces of things.
While a book title is italicized, its chapter titles are in quotation marks. For example, use quote marks for the wonderful title of Chapter 14 in Ian Fleming’s Live and Let Die: “He disagreed with something that ate him.”

Quotation marks should be used with articles in print or online, TV episodes, short stories and songs from an album or Broadway musical.

“That Would be Enough” from Hamilton
“Hank’s Practical Resolutions for Writers” by Hank Phillippi Ryan

8. Quotation marks may be used for technical terms.

That is the difference between a “line editor” and a “copy editor.”

9. Quotation marks may be used for emphasis, implying an alternative meaning.

Her “connection” never phoned the editor.
He was “a writer” who never wrote.

Stressing words or terms thusly may signal disagreement or irony. These are sometimes called “scare quotes.” Think of people talking and emphasizing words using finger quotes.

Editor Griel Marcus describes scare quotes as “the enemy” and believes they distance writers from readers.

These scare quotes do seem like shorthand when a fuller description might do better. Career authors are advised to skip these slightly cynical quotes and work harder on exposition.

Use of quotation marks for emphasis can go terribly wrong. Spotting incorrect usage of quotation marks on grocery store signs and elsewhere has become a rewarding hobby for ironic punctuation fanatics.

Shoplifters will be “prosecuted.”

These quotation marks are presumably put in place for emphasis. If you steal a kumquat, legal action will ensue. Unfortunately, the sign muddles its message. Rather than adding emphasis, the quotation marks here signals to the snarky that the word “prosecuted” is used subjectively—precisely how one might be prosecuted remains distressingly unclear.

Successful writing takes dogged determination. Before launch, punctuate to perfection. After creating your best work, you will be able to send your literary work into the world with much greater confidence.

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