Two-Minute Writing Drill: Quotes
In September I started working as a local editor for Patch.com. As part of that work, I’ve been sort of a defacto writing coach. This is one in an occasional series of writing tips I send out to our team of reporters in hopes of helping them produce cleaner copy for our readers.
After easing up on these notes over the holidays, January got off to a rough start. But I’m back and will be trying to resume sending these out on a close to weekly basis. To get back into it, I wanted to talk about quotations, a subject that was inspired by this story in one of our competitors. Here’s the top of the story:
PEABODY — The future is bright for the new Higgins Middle School, but maybe a little too bright first thing in the morning.
The $90 million school has gotten mostly rave reviews from students, staff, and parents since it opened in 2016. However, the issue of tint on the windows, especially in the gym, has been an ongoing concern over the past year.
“The tinting of the windows in the gym has been a concern,” said Beverley Ann Griffin Dunne, a school committee member. “We’ve asked the project manager to speak with the company that installed the tinting to see if they can make it darker.”
Here’s my problem with the quote: the first half of says the same exact thing that the writer already told us in the previous paragraph. It’s redundant information and one of the first rules of news writing is every sentence should move the story forward by containing new information. The cause of this problem is that we’re convinced we must directly quote a source, even when they don’t say anything that we couldn’t easily paraphrase or write more clearly for our readers.
The News Manual explains why we use quotes:in a detailed entry on using quotes that is well worth a read:
- If you repeat the exact words which people themselves used you will reduce the risk of misreporting what they say.
- When we give a person’s exact words our readers can see both the ideas and the way they were presented.
- People often use lively language when they speak. Quotes allow you to put that lively language directly into your story.
But we do run the risk of relying on them too much. I like to cook, and my own theory on quotes stems from the idea of seasoning a dish. You always hear chefs on cooking shows talking about the importance of seasoning a dish with salt and pepper to bring out the flavors. If the chef forgets to season, the dish is bland. If they season too much, the dish is inedible.
The same goes for quoting: if you don’t have quotes that adds color, voice or interpretation to your story, the story seems flat. If you do it too much, readers get bogged down in the quotes and are left wondering whether you’re a journalist or a stenographer.
So when and how often should you quote? The News Manual offers this advice:
Each quote must earn its place in the story. Do not put in strings of quotes simply because you have them in your notebook.
Alternate quotes and reported speech, choosing those quotes which are especially strong and rewriting in reported speech those which are either too complicated or too long. Just because someone said something does not mean that they have expressed themselves well or clearly. If the quote is likely to confuse your readers or spoil the rest of the story, turn the words into reported speech.
One more note about quotes, and this falls under Dave’s pet peeves: I never, ever use anything other than “said” when attributing a quote. The reason is other verbs like “exclaimed” or “stated” are, in my experience, awkward to readers. “Said” comes off as seamless; if I’m taking the time to quote someone, the quote is so good that I don’t want my words to get in the way of that quote.
As always, I welcome your thoughts on quoting and comments or criticism of this or any of the two-minute drills I have sent out so far.