Quotes are a vital element of many forms of writing. Using them correctly will enhance any text.
Bad quotes, or bad quote usage on the other hand, can really muddle the messages you are trying to convey.
Today’s Instalment III of Writing Well is not designed to be a definitive guide. What we’re focusing on are a couple of common mistakes and some of the most vital factors in incorporating the comments of others into your writing.
Get these 5 things right, and you’ll be well on your way to crafting interesting, informative and relevant articles, releases and other forms of copy.
Go beyond “canned quotes”. You’re better than that.
Don’t allow your subject to simply say, “We are proud / thrilled / excited to be a part of … blah blah blah”.
That is a throwaway quote and it imparts no useful information. If you are creating a media release, it’s guaranteed to glaze over the eyes of both the reporter and the readers. Same for customers and peers.
You might HAVE to allow them to say that, because the boss demands it, or because optics are important at times. But get the folks you’re quoting to go beyond just mouthing platitudes.
Make them sound intelligent and useful by having them impart some of the most direct information and insights through their comments. Then, your job is to weave the real gem quotations throughout the writing. Set them up with a good lead-in sentence, and ensure that the text which follows transitions nicely from the quote itself.
This allows you to show off some of the subject’s expertise while creating a much more interesting narrative. (Which, not coincidentally, will make you look good, too)
Don’t be redundant.
Quotes should not simply reiterate what’s been said elsewhere in the writing, or parrot the observations of others. Rich quotes should introduce information, expand on topics, offer colour, opinion or other insights.
Here’s an extreme example of how bad a redundant quote looks:
XYZ Corporation is pleased to announce it is partnering with ABC Corporation to create a new series of high-quality, carbon-fibre fasteners which will combine tremendous strength with light-weight construction and improved durability for all your needs.
“We at XYZ Corporation are proud to announce this partnership with ABC to create this new series of high-quality, carbon-fibre fasteners for our customers,” said XYZ CEO Frank Lyboring.
With some good editing, this could have been so much better.
XYZ Corporation is pleased to announce it is partnering with ABC Corporation to create a new series of high-quality, carbon-fibre fasteners.
“We at XYZ are so proud of this relationship because it allows us to create fasteners combining tremendous strength with light-weight construction and improved durability for all our customers’ needs,” said XYZ CEO Frank Lyawesome.
Actually interview the person you will quote.
Sometimes, execs or subject matter experts consider themselves too busy to spend a couple of minutes with you while you’re crafting text for them, or for the company.
But here’s why you want to talk with them: It allows you to understand what they think is most important. And, you’ll be able to use their own words in the quotes, giving it a more personal flavour and less of a “tin-canned copy” feel.
Ask one general question, and then get into a couple of specifics so you will get good, relevant replies that will fit seamlessly into the writing.
If face-to-face isn’t possible, send an email containing a few questions, or record a quick phone chat.
Use only the best parts of the quotes.
If you look at your writing and notice long quotations, watch for opportunities to shorten them. Are there particularly meaty, or pithy, passages that really stand out? Is there great colour, or description, which expands on the core messages? Make sure they stand out prominently.
Paraphrase the rest — outside the quotation marks, of course. Depending on what you are writing, you can often paraphrase without attribution. But, if you feel it’s appropriate or necessary then go ahead and add “he / she said” or “Wilson / Johnston / Rizzutti explained”. When paraphrasing, though, be careful to stick as close as feasible to the language the subject actually used.
Most importantly, NEVER mess with context. Make sure your paraphrasing accurately reflects not just the content, but the intent and tone of the speaker’s message.
Accuracy, accuracy, accuracy.
Check and double check to ensure the quote is accurate. If you are liaising with a supervisor or coworkers this might not be an issue, because you are collaborating toward a common goal. But if you are writing something containing the opinions of others, a piece that might generate controversy or misunderstanding, getting the quotes right is essential to your credibility. And, maybe even your pocketbook (think lawsuit here).
If appropriate, record your conversations. Double check the quote against the original comment. Attribute it properly — to the correct person, with the correct title.
Examine your verbs or adverbs, to be sure they fit with the subject and tone of the writing. Avoid using loaded words like “claims” or “alleges” unless they are appropriate to the content.
Words like “said”, “explained” or “commented” aren’t real sexy, but they are most often accurate. If you really need sexy verbage, make darned sure you know your subjects, the audience and how they will react.
All of this goes to context, and that’s the heart of the message.
Don’t mess with context.
When you do, you are also messing with your credibility and reputation — and that of the company or organization you represent.
So, there you have it. A quick, easy set of guidelines for getting and inserting quotes into your writing. Do you have a great anecdote, or a horror story about quoting someone in your own text? Or a thought about this article? Please post it in the comments below.
If you enjoyed this article, read earlier Writing Well posts right here.