The minefield of direct speech

By 26th April 2021Editing, Writing

My face instantly contorted and my mouth pursed to evict the screeching, sour taste of a teaspoon of salt, which I had believed was lemon-soaked sugar!

That’s how I must have looked when I read the advice about the rookie error of publishing articles that contain punctuation and grammar errors and how editors for *Medium’s publications instantly discard them.

I’ve been writing about my life experiences and ideas but been ignoring the annoying itch at the back of my brain telling me that the direct speech I was increasingly using in my writing needed a good scratch. I’ve been writing down conversations with others and with myself, admittedly with some rather random punctuation. I am an editor. However, my writing and editing has been firmly planted in the non-fiction, science-leaning genre. No direct speech in sight – until now. I’d last practised punctuating direct speech when I was 16 and I’m not sure I had even mastered it then. I needed to look at this. I’d been writing for myself; it was time to think about writing for my readers instead.

Apprehensively I started to research how to punctuate and layout direct speech and this is what I found out. Happily, I’d passed the first couple of stages!

  • Direct speech should sit between opening and closing speech marks. These can be single or double depending on preference. I prefer single. But it is possible to have speech inside speech, in which case you would need to have the single speech marks nestled within the double.
  • A new section of dialogue is like beginning a new paragraph and should start with a capital letter.
  • A new line every time there is a new speaker in the conversation helps the reader follow who is speaking.
  • There should be a punctuation mark of some sort at the end of each section of direct speech inside the speech marks.
  • Use a comma, or if needed, a question mark or exclamation mark where the speech is followed by a reporting clause. This is a clause that tells the reader who is speaking. There should be a full stop after the reporting clause. The reporting clause can also come before the speech or between two sections.

Here are some examples.

Across from me was Andy, I shouted over, ‘Do you know where the next bolt is?’

‘Are you on the 5c?’ he asked. Grinning broadly, ‘It’s a bit awkward but it’s to your right.’

‘No, I’m on the 4b!’ I retorted, panicked.

‘No, no, no!’ I silently shouted into the bathroom mirror.

I couldn’t put it off any longer and I didn’t want any more secrets, ‘Ron has sent his report, he says there is nothing more he can do.’

He looked at me with sad eyes, ‘I don’t want to talk about it now.’

How do you like to write about speech or thoughts? How do you find punctuating direct speech? Please let me know in the comments.

*Medium is a platform where you can find articles from a huge variety of writers and anyone can write on Medium – it has been described as ‘the YouTube of writing.’

Carol is an editor and publisher. She has worked with writers for over 20 years, supporting and guiding them in their work. If you would like to unlock your words, write your stories and speak your truth – just for yourself if you wish, contact her at, send her a message or join her Facebook group ‘Editors’ and writers’ hub’.