Q&A: Quotations versus Dialogue

Q: I have literally hundreds of quotes in my autobiography, and after reading your post about them, I’m really confused. Most of what I’m writing about is not quoting a known source like Mark Twain. Rather, it’s in the form of he said, “blah, blah, blah” when I’m relating a story or incident. I don’t even know if this deserves quote marks, and I have been very inconsistent in how I use them.

A: What you’re describing is dialogue, which is different from quotations. A quotation is taken from a work or speech that has been published or broadcast. For dialogue, the guidelines for fiction apply.

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In expository nonfiction, if the author is recounting, for example, a private interview, either the guidelines for dialogue or for quotations may be followed, depending on how scholarly the work is and how formal a tone the author wants to present. In a work meant primarily for a scholarly market, where a high level of documentation is expected, endnotes on the reported interview would include the names of the interviewer and the interviewee along with the date. In a work for the general market, an author can simply write, “In a private conversation, So Andso told me blah blah blah…” Correspondence between the author and a source can be cited similarly.

In narrative nonfiction, including autobiography and memoir, conversations are usually treated as we would in fiction. Use quotation marks if you are reporting the actual dialogue (or the dialogue as you recall it). Quotation marks may be omitted if you are paraphrasing.

For example, here’s an excerpt from Lost Moon, Jim Lovell’s memoir about the Apollo 13 mission. Here Lovell is visiting the White House.

Lovell got a brief hello from Johnson almost as soon as the reception began.

The word hello does not need quotation marks because it is not a direct account of what was said. (Note that Lovell and his co-author Jeffrey Kluger use third person rather than first. This was done to provide narrative unity, since much of the story takes place in Mission Control and other places where Lovell was not present.)

Later, when Lovell is speaking with the Soviet ambassador about the likelihood of people reaching the moon, their conversation is rendered directly, even though Lovell probably did not have a recording or transcript of the event.

[Lovell said] “…It would be nice if all humanity could explore the moon one day.”
“I don’t know if I’ll get there,” the diplomat said. “But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you do.”

Later in the book, when Lovell and Kluger report conversations between the spacecraft and Mission Control, they had recordings to work from, so there would be no room for taking artistic license with those conversations. But memoirists have leeway to recount conversations like Lovell’s with the ambassador to the best of their recollection, without the need for precise documentation.

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