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Writers Talk About Writing

7 Tips for Making Quotes More Believable

If you write copy, have you ever had to "make up" quotes for your boss? This is not such an unusual thing in the world of corporate communications. Bosses are busy and they often don't have time to be interviewed by their own PR or public affairs person.

As a result, the communications worker must manufacture the quote so the boss can review it and decide whether it suits him or her.

Here's the big problem: Many of these manufactured quotes are just plain unbelievable. Look at this sad example from the government of Canada.

Would a real person ever say: "Energy efficiency improvements help lower costs for Canadian families and businesses while safeguarding the environment"? This obviously-manufactured quote has too many multiple-syllable words butting heads with each other. Just try saying "energy efficiency improvements" five times, quickly, and you'll understand what I mean.

While there are some clear rules about how to handle quotes once you've collected them, there are also some incredibly easy ways of making quotes more believable. Here are seven tips on avoiding the fate of marble-mouthed quote maker: 

  1. Use contractions. When people write they might say do not, cannot or will not. But when they speak they almost always say: don't, can't, won't. Use contractions and you'll sound more real. Work to keep them out of your quotes, however, and you'll be giving readers a flashing red light that you've made up the quotes, holus-bolus.
     
  2. Don't use too many big words. Just as Occam's razor holds that the simplest explanation is usually the most accurate, smart writers know that short, easy-to-say words are usually the best representation of how people really speak. Don't employ grandiloquent when you can use overblown. Don't say hazardous when you can replace it with risky.
     
  3. Don't use long sentences. Even though most people typically speak in a somewhat rambling way, with few clear sentence ends, we expect our leaders (or characters in the books we read) to produce short, sharp quotes with neatly-tied ends. Don't have anyone say: "This year's ENERGY STAR award recipients have demonstrated real leadership in promoting the benefits of energy-efficient products and technology to Canadians." Instead, trim it to: "These winners have demonstrated real leadership." (Doesn't that sound much more believable?)
     
  4. Paraphrase judiciously. You don't need to quote everything. If you have some obligatory stuff to say (for example the name of the ENERGY STAR program in the government press release above), don't work it into a quote. This will inevitably sound laboured. Instead, paraphrase and put the juicier material in the quote.
     
  5. Ask someone else to review your quotes. Ask a friend or a coworker to consider, specifically, whether the quotes you've invented sound like the spoken word. Be sure to phrase your request this way so they consider the style rather than the content.
     
  6. Listen to how your boss really speaks. I'm not suggesting that you use your cellphone to secretly record him or her. But listen to the types of words he or she typically uses and try to incorporate them into your quotes. As well, note the sentence construction. Does your boss generally use straightforward sentences: Subject, predicate, object. Or does he or she typically begin with a dependent clause? Make an effort to use some of this style into your quotes, too.
     
  7. Read the quotes aloud. This tip is so important I'd call it a rule. The true test of whether your quotes sound like the spoken word occurs when you actually speak them! If the quotes sound unrealistic as soon as they come out of your mouth, that's an obvious sign you still have some work to do. 

And in case you hadn't made the connection, all of the rules above can and should be applied to your dialogue if you're a fiction writer.


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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday August 13th, 5:33 AM
Comment by: Michael W.
Journos use quotes to underline a point they are making, so something like a paraphrase of why this is important is most useful.
Also useful, if you can get away with it, is something actually quotable and a bit humorous. "These recipients are the real energy stars," for example.
Wednesday August 13th, 9:53 AM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Good points, Michael!
Wednesday August 13th, 2:31 PM
Comment by: Thomas P. (Frankfort, IL)
Our editorial staff doesn't write quotes for CEOs or bosses. We write the content for safety meetings to be conducted by construction contractors. Construction supervisors and foremen read our content aloud to their crews.

For years our practice has been to read all of our content aloud to at least one other person on staff. This out loud review helps us catch phrases and sentences that don't sound "real," words that are difficult to say in succession (like "fast start"), and phrases that shouldn't be said aloud because of inappropriate connotations.

Connotations that can be misinterpreted or intentionally parsed to your disadvantage can be very problematic. In our case, the crew laughs at the supervisor. For instance: PPE is the abbreviation for Personal Protective Equipment and well-known in the construction industry. PPE has to be kept clean for hygienic reasons. We won't publish the sentence "Keep your PPE clean." It reads well, but out loud can easily sound like "keep your pee-pee clean." Say that to a bunch of construction workers and there will be comments.

Thanks for the article Daphne. Writing text that will be spoken has a variety of unique traps and many people learn about those traps the hard way. I'll pass your article on to our whole staff.
Thursday August 14th, 10:25 AM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Thomas. It sounds as though your company has some really well thought-out communications practices. Your comment about "Keep your PPE clean" made me laugh!
Wednesday August 20th, 5:04 PM
Comment by: Martha L.
One issue with using contractions is that the "n't" may not be heard. Consequently, the meaning of the quote will be reversed by the listener. I was misquoted by a reporter for this reason, and there is no easy correction.

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