Don't Reach for Just Any Old Quote
by John Rains

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Here's a passage from Paula LaRocque's book Championship Writing: "The right quotes, carefully selected and presented, enliven and humanize a story and help make it clear, credible, immediate and dramatic. Yet many quotations in journalism are dull, repetitive, ill-phrased, ungrammatical, nonsensical, self-serving or just plain dumb."

Ah, yes. The right quotes help make a story sing. The dull ones need to go into the trash, and we writers and editors need the confidence to put them there.

This is the kind of quote that ought not see the light of print: "Our goal has always been to improve and expand technology-based learning in our schools," Taylor said. "Through partnering with ExplorNet we have encouraged our schools to coordinate resources from government, business and individuals for maximum effectiveness and minimum public expenditures."

Is there any life in that paragraph of verbiage? Can you even understand what is being said without having to read it again?


Why then would a writer inflict it on readers who are paying for the story?

At least two things happen when dull quotes clutter a story, and both are bad. First, the dull quotes tend to tarnish the good ones, assuming the story has some. Second, a succession of dull quotes turns the story itself into so much sludge. Readers -- those who try to struggle through -- get lost.

Here's what to do with quotes that are dull or "just plain dumb":

More Tips on Using Quotes:

Keep them short. Quotes that run longer than two or three sentences tend to sound like sermons or lectures.

Keep them in context. Make sure you are using quotes in a way that conveys the meaning the speaker intended.

Never change words in a quote. Instead of "fixing" the quote, paraphrase it. Or drop it.

It's OK to delete "ums" and "ahs" and to spell out slurred phrases: "would have" instead of "would've," "it had" instead of "it'd."

Avoid parenthetical insertions. They are clunky and hard to read. They may make it appear that we are pointing a derisory finger at the speaker.

If you must insert, do it properly. Use ellipses to show deletion instead of just substituting a word in parentheses. Like this: "I guess ... (Jones) couldn't stand to be alone." Or simply leave in the original word and clarify in parentheses: "I guess he (Jones) couldn't stand to be alone."

Avoid ellipses in most quotes (except for the example we just mentioned), unless you are quoting from documents. In quoting conversation, leave off those dots at the beginning and end of a sentence.

Avoid the "said of" formula. Weak: "I can't stand this," he said of his new job. A quote should be clear to the reader as it is being read.

Avoid quoting fragments of only one or two words. Quotation marks are useful only if the fragment is an unusual word or is a word used in an odd way. If you put an ordinary word in quotes, readers may take it as a sly way of showing doubt.

Don't rush quotes in prematurely. No rule requires you to put a quote in second or third paragraph of your story, although it is all right to put one there if it works well.

Introduce the speaker early. Give attribution as quickly as possible, not at the end of a fat paragraph. Good places are within the first sentence, if you can take advantage of a natural pause, or at the end of the first sentence.

Signal a change to a new speaker. Don't just close one quote and start a new one from a new speaker without giving the reader a heads-up.

Supply grammatical punctuation for spoken quotes. Don't run sentences together even if the speaker did.

Avoid getting in the way of the quote. Don't use clumsy setups such as "When asked why ..." or "Asked why ..."

The best verb for attribution is usually "said." It is neutral and unobtrusive. Other verbs may be loaded, depending on the context.

People don't sniff, smile, or laugh sentences or paragraphs.

Use attribution to anchor a quote directly to the source. Don't leave it to the reader to do the work of making the connection.

Avoid double attribution unless you're quoting from a document. Doubling up on the attribution gives a jarring effect of people speaking in unison.

Avoid trying to quote in dialect and substandard forms. Often, readers will misinterpret your motives. They may suspect you of patronizing or making fun of the speaker.

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Don't Reach for Just Any Old Quote, by John Rains

Copyright © 2004 John Rains
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

John Rains is a newspaper writing coach in North Carolina and has self-published three books: Shooting Straight in the Media: A Firearms Guide for Writers, Writing Beyond the Routine/For More Readable Newspapers, and Write Your Way into the Papers.


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