10 Minutes to Better Quotes
5+ rules for making your posts more interesting with words from real people
Quotes can reveal your source’s character, present their opinions so you don’t have to, and make your so-so story incredibly interesting. Quotes can make or break an article, yet remarkably little is written anywhere about how to use them.
Countless blog posts explain how to format quotes in Medium’s editor (some of them quite helpful). Writing style books tell you how to punctuate a quote. But little is said anywhere about which quotes to use, how to set them up in your article, how to use a quote within a paragraph, when to quote and when to paraphrase, etc.
I don’t find much in journalism textbooks either. Even my beloved AP Stylebook offers remarkably little about the use of quotations. I can summarize the helpful bits from AP, but it’s still not enough:
- Don’t mess with the words in people’s quotes … unless they say “gonna” or “wanna.” Fix those.
- Try to avoid partial quotes. Opt for paraphrasing instead.
- Don’t misquote. (And if you set someone’s quote in a context other than the one in which it was spoken, that’s a misquote, even if you didn’t change the words.)
- Make sure you punctuate correctly.
- Don’t include profanity. [This is rapidly changing in an online news world … much to my chagrin.]
Okay. So that’s AP’s 5. Below are mine.
* If you’re wondering why you should listen to me about quotes (or anything else English-related) scroll to the last section of this article. If your quote question isn’t answered here, please email me so I can make this complete.
1. Don’t be lazy — Start with your own words
Sometimes books start with quotes. Articles should not. There’s a reason for this, maybe two.
The first paragraph of your article has a lot of responsibilities. It’s got to tell your reader as much as it can in the most interesting way possible in order to get people to keep reading the story. Unless the quote can make that happen (and probably even if it can), leave it out.
Second, if you’re working on SEO, then you’re adding keywords into that paragraph as well. (See point #7 of this super helpful piece on optimizing your story’s SEO.)
Quotations don’t work to start an article, and there’s a chance beginning with one might cause your reader to drop you and find someone else who starts with his own words. There are ways you can get around it.
I was working on a story once that had a great quote. I wanted the story to start with the quote, but I didn’t want a quote in my lede (first paragraph). I’ll show you how I avoided using a quotation.
Here’s what my interviewee (Jake) told me:
“I was sitting in Cook County Jail in a pair of $12,000 cowboy boots thinking, ‘How the hell did I end up here?’”
Here’s my first paragraph:
Jake Milliken sat in Cook County Jail in a pair of $12,000 cowboy boots. What got him there was what the judge called a “case of affluenza” and a series of remarkably bad decisions. What got him to where he is now was the judge’s unusual order and the love of a faraway place.
The quote was great by itself, but now I have set up who, what, and where the story is about and even some hints of what’s coming. You can’t see it, but my keyword is buried in there too. And readers learned much more about Jake with his own quotes later in the story.
2. Everybody says something interesting — Don’t quote the boring parts
My interviewees aren’t always so colorful with their language as Jake, so I’m choosy about which words I quote. I choose words that display their personalities and don’t just state facts.
If an interviewee tells me, “There was a party on Saturday I was going to,” I paraphrase to reflect the context. There was a party on Saturday, and Jake would be there. Jake would always be at the party. (Based on what he told me in the interview, this is entirely true of his former life.)
Some basic rules for choosing quotes are agreed on by all sources. Your quote should be:
- Informative, sharing details in a way that is not plain
- Effective at communicating what you want to say
If it is not one of these things, or (better) two or all of them, cut it.
Keep your ears open for the things your interviewee says that show what kind of person he/she is:
- “I’ve got an extra finger on my right hand and strong left hook,” Joyce said.
This quote helps the reader see Joyce’s uniqueness. Here’s a quote from another interesting man:
- “We were able to use some of our money this year to make an impact.”
Hmm. Not very interesting when you consider this is a story about a man of only moderate wealth who just found himself in a position to give more than $3 million to charity. “Make an impact” is an empty statement, and “use some of our money” gives no indication of the magnitude of this man’s generosity or the sacrifice he made to give it.
A man like this is immensely interesting, and, by choosing the wrong quote, the writer fails to convey this to readers.
3. Don’t make your subject sound stupid
Here, I deviate a bit from the wisdom of the Associated Press. I’m not a newspaper reporter. I work with the people whose stories I tell to get the best possible result.
I have the privilege of writing about really remarkable people, some of whom have never told their stories before. I want them to be proud to share them. So I clean up quotes (and show them what I’ve done before I hit publish.) If you write for a newspaper that doesn’t allow this, follow their rules.
For me, this means a light cleanup of bad grammar. If I’m writing about the owner of a multi-million dollar business or an educator in a university and he tells me he has eaten “a apple” for lunch every day of his 28-year career, I’d change it to “an apple.” But if it’s a rancher who’s proud to be from Texas, I might not remove the word “ain’t” from his quote. It’s part of his character. These are subtle judgment calls, but I have the luxury of letting them see the articles before they’re published.
In the end, you just don’t want to make your speaker sound stupid. It’s unkind and unprofessional. Everybody makes mistakes in their spoken English. Don’t use their mistakes. If you don’t have permission to clean up their quotes, use only the best ones. You never want to embarrass anyone, especially if you might want to speak with them again someday.
4. Learn how to attribute quotes so they stand out
First, follow the style guide of the publication you’re writing for. If there is no style guide, follow these general rules: Always give the first name and last name (and the title, if pertinent) on first reference. You follow this with attribution by last name only (if this is formal/professional/newspaper writing) or first name only (if you’re writing something more informal, like a feature article or a newsletter).
Here’s an example of some quotes properly attributed:
- “First the fire was above our helmets, and then it was leaping over the top of the firetruck,” said Captain Andrew Moreton, chief of the Alameda County Fire Department. “But we put it out in eight hours of fighting it like it was our worst enemy.”
Later in the story …
- “Thank God this is the end of fire season, and the rains are now doing our jobs for us,” Moreton said.
Make sure you’re consistent about this, and never go back and forth referring to him sometimes as Andrew and other times as Moreton. This will confuse your readers.
(Almost) Never begin a sentence with the attribution
This one is more easily explained by example. See below why putting the attribution of a quote first almost never works.
- [Incorrect] Joyce said, “I’ve lived here my whole life. I’m not about to move just because there’s a bulldozer in my front yard.”
- [Incorrect] Franklin explains, “I thought he knew I was a turtle. I guess that explains why he was surprised that I was green.”
Here’s how those quotes should look:
- “I’ve lived here my whole life,” Joyce said. “I’m not about to move just because there’s a bulldozer in my yard.”
- “I thought he knew I was a turtle,” Franklin said. “I guess that explains why he was surprised I turned green.”
Announcing you’re about to quote someone is putting a stumbling block in front of your reader. You might as well say, “Hey, this next part is a quote!” Let their words lead your sentence.
There is one exception. You can put attribution first if you’re sure it will help your reader understand that you are changing speakers. Here’s an example:
“I’ve lived here for 45 years,” Joyce said. “I’m not about to move just because of a stupid bulldozer.”
But Franklin says, “I’m a turtle, and I don’t have a hard hat. A bulldozer is plenty good reason to find a new home.”
Be clear when to attribute with “Person said,” and when to use “Said person” and other rules
Quotes are important. You don’t want to ruin them by making your own words around them stand out. The word “said” disappears easily behind your speaker’s more interesting words, but added words (“…he replied winsomely,” for example) compete with your speaker for attention. Why would you want to do that?
Another cardinal rule: No one ever “quips.” You wouldn’t say this out loud. Don’t use it in writing.
About “said” and “says” — If you interviewed someone, it’s in the past. You’re reporting what they said. Use “said.” The word “says” is present tense. Only use it for something your interviewee always or regularly says.
- “I always walk boldly through a door, and that’s exactly what I did today,” Aronson said.
- “Aronson is like a bulldozer” Joyce says often.
Now, this next part is a little tricky: Is it “he said,” or is it “said he?” Which one sounds more natural to you? Right, the first one. English always puts the subject before the verb. But there’s one reason to do it the other way around. That’s if there’s information or a title that needs to come after the attributed name. See if you can see the difference in the following examples:
- [Correct first reference] “I’ve just gotten back in the habit of wearing socks,” said Justin Timberlake, who trademarked the barefoot-with-dress-shoes style.
- [Correct second reference] “My favorites are the argyles,” Timberlake said.
- [Mildly Incorrect] “Honestly, despite the rumors, my wife had nothing to do with my switch to socks,” says Timberlake.
Putting the words in this form of abnormal English (verb before subject) signals to your reader that there is more coming in the sentence, and adding the word “says” actually adds a little suspicion that what he’s saying might not be true. Your reader may fill in the blanks:
- “Honestly, despite the rumors, my wife had nothing to do with the switch back to socks,” says Timberlake, crossing his fingers behind his back.
5. Have no fear — Punctuation is easy
Here, I go back to my journalistic roots. I was trained with AP style. In professional publications, AP style is most often followed for quotes. And they make it easy:
- Periods, commas, and question marks go inside the quotation marks.
- Semicolons and colons go outside (though these should be extremely rare).
- Never use two forms of punctuation in a row: [Incorrect] “Man, this is an awesome quote guide!,” she said.
- Quotes should always be the double kind: [Correct] “This is an awesome quote guide!”
- For a quote within a quote, use the single kind. [Correct] “I’m sitting here thinking to myself, ‘No one has ever taught me so much about quotes before!’” [If you opened a quote, don’t forget to close it, just like you would do with your front door.]
- Use an ellipsis to show deleted words (though you shouldn’t delete words often): “Put your … sock on!” she told him. (Following AP rule #5 above.)
- Use brackets to insert words only for clarity. (Do this rarely): “We gave 100 percent of our [adjusted] gross income.”
- Don’t force your reader into a long, multi-sentence superquote. Be kind. Use concise quotes and tell the rest of the story yourself. That’s where paraphrasing is your friend. Practice at this skill. Using a long quote is lazy, and there’s an easy way to break up a long quotes anyway. Below, we let the reader know who is speaking right away:
- “I really didn’t know why my husband was so stinky all of a sudden,” Biel said. “When I found out about the no-sock trend, I had to nip that right in the bud … or the toe.”
Note that the second sentence doesn’t need attribution, because you’ve already told the reader who is speaking in the paragraph.
Bonus point: Never, ever, invent a fake quote
No need to explain this last point. Just don’t do it.
And — voila! Now you can use quotes in your stories with confidence. (Feel free to message me if you want more specific examples.) Your interviewees will respect you as a professional, and your readers won’t quit you for the next story about the perfect morning routine that will make you a millionaire.
* Why you should trust me about writing, English grammar, or how to write a good quote
I went to college for six years, dumping a marketing degree in year two because I preferred the writing and English-classes (and because I had a little bit of an ethical problem with marketing). I switched to a journalism degree and found my people.
I spent an extra year of college working as city editor on the newspaper of our university. (A city editor assigns, tracks, and edits reporters’ stories. Though I’ve done many things in between, this is essentially my role now, though I don’t work for a newspaper.)
After college, I worked freelance for more than a decade, edited and ghost wrote books, worked for magazines, learned to design and write curriculum.
Then, to meet a goal, I went back to study English again, this time earning three English-teaching certifications. I studied 450-page grammar books which included engrossing chapters on the use of phrasal verbs and “Modals of Ability and Possibility.” The certifications required a 40-hour online grammar component and a three-day online exam. (I’m glad that’s over!)
I’ve taught English living in three foreign countries (and six others from home by Skype and Zoom). I’ve written for just about every form of print media and now write online. In my present work, I write and edit almost every day.
If you take my advice, you won’t have to do all the stuff I did to be able to share it with you. At least you know that I’ve done my homework.
Write me with your grammar questions at email@example.com.