Rethinking the block quote

I recently noticed my tendency to skip right over the block quotes in a book I was reading and figured there are probably others who do the same. My brain likely took the diminutive type as a cue that the quote wasn’t as important as the main text—but was this effect what the author intended?

Maybe.

Nonfiction authors use long quotes for one of two main reasons*:

  1. They have made (and would like to highlight) their own point but are using another authoritative source to buttress the argument.
  2. They want to draw special attention to the other source.

*(Be wary of the more disingenuous reason some authors use block quotes: to boost the word count of their manuscript.)

The problem is that, particularly in the second case, the traditional typographic treatments of block quotes may not do justice to the author’s intent.

Typographic styling of block quotes

According to Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style, “Block quotations can be distinguished from the main text in many ways. For instance: by a change of face (usually from roman to italic), by a change in size (as from 11 pt down to 10 pt or 9 pt), or by indention.” He continues, “Combinations of these methods are often used, but one device is enough.” Bringhurst also advises using a white line or half-line at either end of the block to distinguish it from the main text.

A change from roman to italic can be problematic; as Access Ability: A Practical Handbook on Accessible Graphic Design advises, italics should be used sparingly and only to enhance communication. Long passages in italics can be hard to read, and since block quotes are usually set as blocks because they are too long to be run in, they are almost by definition ill suited to italics. There are typefaces with very readable italic fonts (Minion comes to mind), but in general italics are harder to read than their roman counterparts.

A change (usually a drop) in size can also be problematic: for readers, text in smaller type—think footnotes or back matter—means that the text is less important and can typically be ignored.

Worse are some websites that use greyed out boxes for block quotes. Rather than highlight the text, the screen is a cue to me that what’s in the box is of secondary importance.

Indention of block quotes has an interesting history: During the Baroque and Romantic periods, long quotations featured quotation marks at the beginning of every line (a practice I’m sure readability advocates are glad we’ve done away with). “When these distractions were finally omitted,” wrote Bringhurst, “the space they had occupied was frequently retained.”

Editorial considerations for block quotes

Editors may be able to give some input to the designer about how to style block quotes, but in many cases those kinds of decisions are beyond an editor’s control (particularly for freelancers). How do we minimize the risk that a quote an author wanted to showcase doesn’t get demoted to afterthought status? Here are some questions to consider:

1. What is the author’s purpose for using the quote?

In a lot of texts, particularly academic ones, quotes do play only a supportive role. In those cases, smaller type may be warranted, as a way of keeping attention on the main text.

However, it gets tricky when you work with texts where the author’s motivation for using quotes varies throughout. In those cases, lobby the designer for a neutral approach to styling a block quote, or reconsider using block quotes altogether.

2. Do we really need a block quote?

Is it important for the author to use the entire quote? Or can you refine it to its essence and use a run-in quote, which—if it means the reader will actually read it—may have more of an impact? Take out as much of the filler as you can. Even a shorter block quote would be better; long blocks of text, particularly in small type, are unwelcoming to readers.

3. Can we draw attention to the block quote through emphasis?

When authors add emphasis, either through italics or boldface, to an existing quote (along with a note that they’ve added emphasis), I admit I stop and pay attention. But don’t overuse this device. If it shows up more than once in a manuscript, it may be a good indication that only the emphasized portion of the quote should be used, run in to the main text.

4. Can we consider alternatives to the traditional block quote?

In a book I recently proofread, long quotes were simply set as regular paragraphs with quotation marks. The quotes never spanned more than a paragraph, and there were few of them, so this approach worked well for this particular text.

If the traditional block quote would not serve the text well, consider other options.

5. Can we communicate intent to the designer?

If possible, let the designer know the purpose of the quotes. It would be impractical—not to mention inconsistent, and crazy making for the designer—to set a different style for quotes you want to highlight and those you want to downplay, but communicating the general tenor of the quotes to the designer may yield a design that better suits the author’s text.

Design options for block quotes

1. Indent only

A neutral approach for block quotes is to eschew decreasing the type size or italicizing and simply set it off with indents, with a line space before and after. The indents provide a visual cue that the text is a quote, but the type size suggests to the reader that it’s at least of equal importance to the main text. Keeping roman type retains readability.

2. Consider a complementary but contrasting typeface

If the main body is in serif type, for example, maybe block quotes can be sans serif, of equal size.

3. If the author wants to highlight the quotes, consider making them bigger

Block quotes in larger type than the main text are almost unheard of, but if emphasis is the author’s intent, this option may be worth considering.

When designing block quotes, don’t be afraid to experiment, but use judgment, of course. Deviating too much from standard expectations can make the styling look like a mistake, and overusing any device can lessen its impact and yield an ugly design.

The main takeaway is the importance of communication: talk to the editor or author, and try to ascertain the purpose of the quotes before deciding how to style them.

***

(The irony isn’t lost on me that my WordPress theme’s default is indented italics for block quotes. Only time will tell if I’ll tweak the CSS or if laziness will prevail.)

One Response to Rethinking the block quote

  1. Claudine Laforce

    Than you for this piece. I’m planning on using block quotes in an upcoming publication so I will keep your recommendations in mind.

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