When we see a play or a movie, we’re made keenly aware of the power good dialogue. Quotations are your article’s dialogue with the reader: done correctly, they move the story forward, reveal character, and engage (or possibly enrage) the reader.
However, poor quoting habits undermine your source’s credibility, as well as your own. Avoid these dirty half-dozen quoting habits in your nonfiction work.
- Avoid the mundane or “yes-man” quote. Having a source quote their age, job title, spouse’s name or other information that could be easily handled with a paraphrase (or better yet, a pull-out stat box) often sounds insipid. Worse, it’s wasteful, for quotes usually convey the information in a less compact manner. Also deadly to good copy is the “yes” or “echo” quote. If one source agrees with another, it’s fine to mention that, but the second source’s quote needs to take a different tack, show another angle, or help set up a transition to the next paragraph, not just parrot what the first source said.
- Avoid awkward punctuation of quoted material. Outside of children’s educational TV shows, few English-speaking persons voice their punctuation as they talk. Sometimes the proper punctuation for their remarks is obvious; at other times, using a comma, period or semi-colon to end a phrase is heavily dependent upon inflection, tone, and context. Recording the interview, taking good notes and reading your quotes aloud can all help determine if the way you’ve quoted your subject matches the speaker’s intent.
- Limit the number of partial-sentence quotes you use. When I see partial quotes, it “makes me wonder” about the rest of the quote. Did the writer not think “a full paraphrase” would be “effective”? Or is the writer “intentionally emphasizing” that the subject said the words surrounded by quotation marks, fearing that readers will read a paraphrase as “editorializing”? Whatever the reason, partial quotes look “choppy” and “rob the quote of context.”
- With long quotes, consider paraphrasing all or part of the passage. Quotes can carry a significant load in your writing, but rarely are they the most concise, or necessarily the most clear, way to convey expository information. Shorter quotes may be the best way to support the information you’re trying to get across. If your attribution to a source is clear, consider boiling down lengthy stories to the bare bones and peppering your retelling of the information with quotes from your interviewee.
- Avoid “back announcing” a quote when you change sources. It’s fine to follow a quote from Source A with one from Source B, but ending A’s remarks at the end of his or her quote, then quoting B without introducing or referencing him or her, is confusing.
- Avoid canned or revised quotes. When quoting, the nutrition mantra that fresh is superior to frozen or canned is certainly true. Sure, there will be times when you can’t snag the CEO or another VIP PDQ for your story, and you’ll have to make do with quotes provided by the source’s public-relations department. But keep such utterances brief, and select only the most natural-sounding ones for your story. Reading a canned quote aloud can be helpful to test whether it sounds organic or manufactured.
A similar danger, if you permit sources to review your article before publication (or are required to do so for whatever reason), is that they will succumb to the temptation to revise their quotes. Revised quotes are much like plastic surgery; the subject is certain that it will raise their self-esteem, but the end result will say more to others about their insecurity than their unvarnished beauty. Emphasizing that article reviews are for factual accuracy only sometimes keeps would-be quote-makeover artists at bay.