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Writers Talk About Writing

Nine Ways to "Lift" Your Quotes

My training as a writer came from newspapers. I started at a community weekly and then advanced to a metropolitan daily. I was really young when I learned how to handle quotes; not all corporate writers are so lucky. If you ever struggle with quotes, here's a list of rules that will make the process easier for you.

1) Never use a synonym for "said." You don't need to use offbeat terms like verbalize, utter or evince. In fact, you shouldn't even say commented, stated, or questioned. If you stick with "said," people will stop seeing it and it will be just like wallpaper to them — which is exactly what you want. In particular, don't ever say, "laughed" as in "We really smoked the competition," Fred Smith laughed. Yes, people make a noise when they're laughing but it's more like a snort. If, for some reason, you need to show your source has done two things at more or less the same time then say: "We really smoked the competition," Fred Smith said with a laugh.  

2) Generally put the name (or pronoun) first and the "said" directly after. Write: Mary Smith said or she said. Or, Fred Smith said or he said. Using said Mary or said she is a bit too poetic for corporate writing.

3) Don't ever begin a story with a quote. Even if the quote is sensational, beginning with it is both jarring and unfriendly because you haven't yet introduced the reader to the concept of your story.

4) For the same reason, don't ever give a quote until AFTER you've introduced the source. It's much more engaging for the reader if you begin with a paraphrase or a summary of what your source said. Then go to the quote. So, Fred Smith said he was tired of the extra work. "Blah, blah and blah," he said. Do you see how that’s far more engaging than, "Blah, blah, blah, blah," Fred Smith said?

5) By and large quotes should be reserved for material that is said in a particularly unique, interesting or idiosyncratic way. If you (the writer) can say it better, then you should say it. Reserve quotes for material that captures the speaker's unique voice. Here's an example of a good quote, from the 2013 New York mayoral race, attributed to Bill Thompson: "If you don't scream and if you don't holler, you're 'mild-mannered.' If you don't try and throw someone down the stairs, you lack fire in the belly." And here's an example of a bad quote: "The police-reported crime rate has followed a downward trend, and, in 2012, reached its lowest level since 1972." (Hint: There's usually no good reason to use quotes focused on numbers. See tip 8 about paraphrasing.)

6) Quotes should sound like the spoken word, rather than the written word. Typically people don't use three-syllable words when speaking. And they also almost always use contractions. They speak in sentences that are short enough so they don't have to take a breath in the middle of them. If you're ever in the unenviable position of having to make up quotes for your sources, then read them aloud to ensure they sound believable.

7) Never use more than one or two quoted sentences (ideally, one) without separating them with a "s/he said" or a paraphrase. Great big chunks of quotes act like a brick wall instead of a window.

8) Paraphrase. A lot. This is your job as a writer. Take what the source has told you and put it in better, more succinct words. Occasionally, you may be able to just remove the quote marks from around the sentence, presenting it as if you said it yourself. This is perfectly fine if you want to convey the information but the subject hasn't said it in a particularly interesting way.

Here is an excellent example of paraphrasing from a New York Times story on Dora Charles, one of Paula Deen's cooks:

The money was not great. Mrs. Charles spent years making less than $10 an hour, even after Ms. Deen became a Food Network star. And there were tough moments. She said Ms. Deen used racial slurs. Once she wanted Mrs. Charles to ring a dinner bell in front of the restaurant, hollering for people to come and get it.

Then, writer Kim Severson delivers the quote: "I said, 'I'm not ringing no bell,' " Mrs. Charles said. "That's a symbol to me of what we used to do back in the day." 

9) Use quotes sparingly. A story with too many quotes looks as gaudy and inappropriate as a ring with too many jewels.

As with so many things in life, less is often more.

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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 February 12th 2014, 8:25 AM
Comment by: William H. (Severn, MD)
Great advice. I love it. I'll tuck this away for future reference. Thanks.
Wednesday February 12th 2014, 9:16 AM
Comment by: Robert E M.
I am teaching Exodus Bible lessons from the New International Version. I am amazed how many quotes that book contains and how they are recorded. I need to digest your article in my future teaching.
Wednesday February 12th 2014, 10:52 AM
Comment by: Robert B. (Marietta, GA)
Great article. In persuasive writing, like legal briefs, quotes carry a lot of power because they represent authority instead of mere advocacy. So, the problem of overusing quotes can be more difficult to avoid. However, the problem can be reduced by writing the whole paragraph in a way that would make sense if the quotation marks were deleted, including the use of brackets to force the capitalization and tense to fit the sentence, paragraph, and paper. However, the more you quote, the less persuasive each individual quote will be. So, you may need to choose between two or more good quotes in order to preserve the effectiveness of the most important one.
Wednesday February 12th 2014, 11:29 AM
Comment by: Tom W. (Xenia, 45385, OH)
answered my confusion... thanks...`
Wednesday February 12th 2014, 1:11 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.
Another keeper, Daphne - thanks!

The Happy Quibbler
Wednesday February 12th 2014, 3:44 PM
Comment by: Arturo NY (KATONAH, NY)
Most of the writing I do is what I call "commercial speech." Advertising, public relations, company communications, etc. Quotations are an important tool to authenticate and/or verify product claims and attributes. In terms of the graphics alone, quotation marks
add value. And quotations offer the opportunity to make statements that would not be credible coming out of the company's mouth.

"This is terrific advice," Arthur said.
Wednesday February 12th 2014, 8:15 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for the great comments, everyone!

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