Resist the urge to flood your writing with quotations

July 21, 2013 | Blogging, Writing

I have coached many reporters and business professionals over the years, and one of the most common and damaging habits they fall prey to is the irresistible urge to flood their copy with quotations — whether drawing from human sources they have interviewed, or from material sources such as encyclopedias, research reports, white papers and so on.

Too many writers mistakenly believe that quotations are the spice of writing, that they add authentic voices to the subject. Wrong, in almost every case. Writing that is driven by quotations is writing without a voice.

I learned that lesson the hard way. When I graduated from college with my journalism degree and got my first newspaper job, I had no confidence in my note-taking ability so I used a recorder habitually. Because I captured so many verbatim comments I would write stories leaden with direct quotations. Some of my stories were 50 percent or more quoted material!

Finally, an experienced editor took notice that I was using a recorder and building my stories largely on quotations. Wisely, he suggested I set the record aside and start taking notes by hand, writing down only the most pertinent information and choicest quotations. Over-quoting was a “lazy way” to report, he said, urging me to tell the story in my own voice, which is the reporter’s job.

As I later realized — after becoming an editor myself and wrestling with stories from reporters and businesspeople guilty of the same excesses — over-quoting leaves stories rudderless. There is no narrative voice. Instead, it becomes a choir of voices that leaves a story without any single, distinctive voice to lead readers through the news article, essay, report, or any number of professional documents.

It’s important that a piece of writing have a narrator, an overriding voice, somebody who the reader can achieve familiarity with, if not intimacy. Somebody they trust, somebody whose voice is one they recognize as their guide. Only then does a story have real direction. Only then can it connect with the reader.

I often point to the Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine as excellent guideposts for the proper percentage of quotations. They use few and very good quotes, so much so that when finished you can remember the quotes. Memorability is part of what give quotations their power. The person who uses quotations voluminously takes away their power.

Another publication I often cite — though an extreme one on this topic — is The Economist. The writing is almost entirely expository, and outstanding. Rarely will you find a quote on the pages of The Economist, which is the other extreme.

Gay Talese — the legendary New York Times’ reporter and author of books such as Thy Neighbor’s Wife, The Kingdom and the Power and Honor Thy Father, says this about quotations: “I have gotten away from direct quotations. Almost without exception, you can say it better if you don’t have to stay within the quotes that come out of a person’s mouth.”

Bob Howard, former managing editor of the Los Angeles Business Journal, used to tell reporters that quotes were to be used sparingly, “like seasoning,” to flavor the story. In writing, as in cooking, too much seasoning ruins the dish.

For convenience sake, I still use a recorder when interviewing sources, but because of the lessons learned I’ve discontinued over-quoting. Most of my stories, blog posts and other pieces of writing have very few quotations, and I’m very selective about the ones I include. Rather than liberally quoting my source material, I distill and present it as expository writing, while still attributing the content to the proper sources.

So collect the information you must, but be scrupulous about using only the finest and most telling quotations.

Which quotes should you use? A criterion for quote selection will be outlined in an upcoming blog post.

Mike Consol teaches public speaking, PowerPoint presentation skills and business writing to companies and business professionals in the Oakland-San Francisco-San Jose Bay Area.