Direct quotes bring writing to life

Child writingAdding more details to writing almost always enhances it. One kind of detail students should be encouraged to use is direct quotes.

Direct quotes can be conversation between two or more people. Direct quotes can be the inner thoughts of a person. Direct quotes can be onomatopoeia sounds that a person hears—a dog’s bark, a siren or a plane’s engine.

But most children don’t use direct quotes.  They use indirect quotes. For example, they write, “Joyce said that I could come to her party,” instead of Joyce said, “Why don’t you come to my party?” With indirect quotes readers do not hear exact words or sounds. Instead they hear the words or sounds filtered through the mind of the narrator.

Is there a meaningful difference? Definitely! Suppose you hear the screeching of tires and the thud of a car crash with your own ears. You become hyperalert, perhaps scared. You might feel a chill ripple through you. But suppose your friend tells you about an accident near her home. She tells you there were awful sounds and she was scared. In the first instance, you are there. You are hearing the sounds yourself and the impact is palpable. In the second instance, the events are second hand. You are not hearing the sounds yourself.  The impact is weak.

When we write we want to let readers experience as much as possible through their own senses, not through a character’s or a narrator’s. One way to put readers into a situation is to use direct quotes. Let’s look at how some students have used direct quotes.

Here a sixth grader uses the exact words of a teacher. The student could have written, “The teacher said the cookies tasted good.” But isn’t hearing the exact words of the teacher better?

Today we presented our cookies to Mrs. Smith, and she eyed them carefully. She took a bite, and her face lit up. “Why, this cookie beats every cookie I’ve tasted,” she bellowed. “Can you make me these again?”

Next, we hear the thoughts and the shouting of a child written by a fifth grader.

I woke up in the morning, running down the stairs, feeling grown up. I’m turning seven!

“Mom! Dad! Mom? Dad?” I ran upstairs and downstairs, searching all rooms. “Where is everybody?” I thought. “Did they forget my birthday?” Two thousand questions about my birthday ran in my head!

I wondered if my parents were in the garden. I rushed upstairs, changed my clothes, ran downstairs, and opened the door. Where was everybody?

“Mom! Dad!” Silence. “Mom? Dad?” Still silence.

Another fifth grader wrote about a boy who cared for a baby dragon.

Weeks later when the dragon was bigger than Cody and had grown wings, Cody said, “We have to get out of here. I’m endangering the entire village.”

“Yes, you’re right. We do,” the dragon said.

“You can talk. Whoa! Listen, it’s getting late. I better get home,” Cody said.

As Cody entered the village, a mystic traveler was listing dragon names. One name caught his attention: Phoenixheart. Suddenly Cody sprinted to where his dragon was. “Your name is Phoenixheart.”

“Cool name, but I have something to admit. I can’t actually speak. I’m just forming words in your mind,” Phoenixheart said.

Did you notice how we, the readers, learn that the dragon speaks at the same moment that the boy does.  We are there, hearing the conversation with our own ears.

Next, a fourth grader tells about his birthday party. His direct quotes are short, but notice how real they sound.

We played tag in the downstairs hall, but it didn’t last long because my mom yelled, “That’s enough!” After that, we played magnetic darting. When everyone kept hitting the hall wall, my dad said, “Go outside and play.”

Finally, a first grader shows that even seven-year-olds can use direct quotes effectively as she summarizes a book she read.

One day Nate the great was in his garden weeding when Oliver the pest came over. 

“I have lost a weed,” said Oliver. 

“No problem,” said Nate the great.  “You may have all of my weeds.” 

“But this was my weed,” said Oliver the pest.  “I bought it at Rosamond’s adopt-a-weed sale for a nickel.  It’s name is Superweed.  It is small and scraggly,” said Oliver. 

“Very well, I will take your case,” said Nate the great.

Once kids see how powerful direct quotes are, they want to use them all the time.

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