Writers struggle with a lot of things. One of them is the proper way to use quotes in a story.
The editing work I’ve done this year has made it clear how common a struggle this is. Time and again writers turn in stories with too many quotes or quotes that ramble, aren’t relevant to the subject or restate what they’ve already written.
There’s a good reason to go after good quotes.
Dull quotes make dull stories.
But good quotes make good stories even better.
Quotes are to stories what spices are to food. Carefully selected and placed, they can add flavor and character to an otherwise pedestrian effort.
Getting good quotes is a multi-step process. It starts with finding the right people to talk to and asking the right questions – without those, you won’t have the right kind of material to work with.
The raw material is just the beginning. Once you’ve got a source’s words down, you’ve got to cut out the extraneous stuff, while remaining true to their meaning, so only the best remains.
Sometimes you get lucky and run into a quote machine, the way Roger Ebert did when he interviewed Lee Marvin in 1970 for this Esquire piece that the magazine re-published online after Chris Jones’ February 2010 profile of Ebert went viral. If you read Ebert’s Marvin piece you’ll see it’s a seemingly stream of consciousness monologue, essentially one long quote. But slowly details emerge. Ebert turned his tape recorder on and left it on, picking up all sorts of little gems. But he also used his reporter’s training to describe, as the magazine describes it, ” a beer-addled, expletive-laden day with the actor.”
You may know in advance if someone you’re schedule to interview is known for their bon mots, in which case make sure you’ve got plenty of batteries for your recorder or smartphone.
Sadly, there aren’t many Lee Marvins around, and most of the time, getting good quotes involves a lot more hard work than just turning on a recorder.
When it comes to quotes, here are some recommendations gleaned from my years on the job:
Ask the right questions. You won’t get information worth quoting if you don’t ask the right questions. You can’t ask the right questions if you don’t prep for an interview. First, make sure you’re talking to the right person – a media relations, publicist or public information officer will do in a pinch, but the CEO, inventor, mother of the murder victim, officer involved or Army general are always the preferred choice. Next, read everything you can about the person or situation. The more you know going in, the better, more probing questions you can ask.
Take detailed notes. It doesn’t matter if you take shorthand, type on a laptop or record everything and use a transcription service – one way or another, you’ve got to take down verbatim what the person says.
Organize the story. Some stories don’t materialize until you’ve done enough reporting to know what the subject really is. But for other pieces, you know the outcome going in, either because it’s simple, short, a Q&A or you’re writing based on your own pitch. If you know how you’re going to shape your story from the get go, you’ll know what questions to ask and the kinds of quotes you need. When that’s the case, don’t leave the interview without what you came for, even if it means asking and re-asking a question until you get an answer.
Be selective. Once you’re in writing mode, use only what you need to. Chances are you’ll have a lot more than you can use in a story. Regardless of how tempting it is to stick all of them in the piece, use only the very best – or if you’re doing a short piece – the best of the best. I learned this the hard way. In my first job after journalism grad school as a health care trade magazine reporter, I loved filling stories with quotes – so much so my editor said I wasn’t writing as much copying the contents of my notebook. Ouch. That taught me to be more sparing with my words, and quotes.
Paraphrase instead. Writers think they have to quote someone to share what the person has to say. But paraphrasing is another way to do that, especially if the story you’re writing is short and you’ve got to make every word count. People tend to ramble, so paraphrasing a concept they took 45 words to state in a more succinct and understandable 10, 15 or 20 is doing everybody a favor: your source, your readers and yourself. When paraphrasing, however, take care not to changing the speaker’s meaning, and always include an attribution so your audience know whose thoughts they’re reading.
Double check the material. If you’re working with sensitive material of any kind, and even if you aren’t, make sure the words you’re attributing to another person are accurate. Double or triple check everything, including the spelling of a source’s name.
Want to learn more about the proper care and handling of quotes? My all-time favorite resource is William E. Blundell’s classic writing guide, The Art and Craft of Feature Writing. If you can find a copy, look at Chapter 6, “Handling Key Story Elements,” especially at a section entitled “Handling People and Quotes.” Blundell is of the less-is-more camp. In the section he discusses a Wall Street Journal story he wrote about cowboys that he interviewed 35 people for but quoted only four.
Got your own secrets for getting good quotes? Please share.