Get out one of your stories and start counting. Not all the words, just the ones between quotation marks.
Chances are you’ll get quite a mouthful.
We all know the importance of avoiding run-on sentences in our copy, but too often our standards drop when those twin apostrophes enter the picture, and we end up with quotes that run off at the mouth.
Here’s a quick and easy way to avoid journalistic logorrhea, one inspired by the current national obsession with calorie and carb-counting: Put your quotes on a diet.
The value of quote reduction became evident when I asked bureau reporters at a metro daily to add up the quotes in their stories. Many quotes weighed in at 30-40 words with some tipping the scale at 40-50 and even higher.
On closer examination, it became clear that reporters were all too often using quotes as filler, bulking up a journalistic meal with the empty calories of verbiage.
By comparison, a story by Jeffrey Gettleman of The New York Times, about a two-car collision that killed two Alabama sisters who were traveling to visit each other, quoted six people, but each utterance illustrates what the Roman orator Cicero called brevity’s “great charm of eloquence.” (I’ve touched on his work previously but this is an extended look.) Notice how Gettleman can use brief quotes and even sentence fragments by blending them with exposition or action, either on the front or back end.
“What are the odds of this? One in a million? One in a billion?” asked Wentworth’s husband, Brian, as he took a long, sad drag on his cigarette.
“Sometimes, it makes the hair stick up on the back of your neck,” said Bo Hall, whose mother was killed.
“They weren’t fancy women,” said their sister Billie Walker. “They loved good conversation. And sugar biscuits.”
In 1982, Hall was driving with her son, Bo, when they skidded off a bridge and into a creek. Bo, then 12 but thick for his age, bent the door open and sat his mother on top of the car. “So she wouldn’t drown,” he recalled.
“After that, we just don’t know what happened,” said Chuck Martin, the deputy county coroner. “Did they see each other and wave? Did one lose control?”
Wentworth was the family joker. She liked to tell people about the time she was baking biscuits and asked her first husband to go get some cigarettes. “He came back 11 years later,” said her sister Billie Walker. “That was the thing about Sheila. She’d make you laugh.”
“God, there will be times when we want to go hunting together and shopping together, but we can’t,” said the pastor, Steve Johnson. “There will be times we just want to sit and chat, but now, God, we can’t.”
As the service closed, relatives walked slowly back to their pickups.
“Y’all be careful now,” the pastor said.
Bingeing on quotes is an easy trap to fall in when the people — especially when the source is a politician, school board official, a lawyer, or any of those professional types — talk as if they were billing by the word.
But a 45-60 word quote explaining a sewer bond proposal that seems like an easy solution for the writer can choke a reader. (The quote diet is a timely discipline now during campaign season when the temptation is to let politicians and their mouthpieces go on ad infinitum.)
Obviously, there are times when it’s important we get the news directly from the source’s mouth. No paraphrase would have the impact of President Bill Clinton’s declaration “I did not have sex with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.”
Getting quotes is one thing. Using them effectively is another. Many reporters use quotations as a crutch. They forget that they, not their sources, are writing the story.
By all means, fill your stories with voices, but just as you’d steer clear of a windbag at a party, spare your readers those bloated quotes that deaden a piece of writing.
Here are some strategies for the quote diet:
1. Take ten percent off the top. Most speech is bloated. Trim the fat, leaving the verbatim message, or paraphrase.
2. Raise your quote bar. It’s the writer’s job to make meaning with the materials collected during the reporting. You decide which quotes convey the information and which are better paraphrased. Quotations, as Kevin Maney of USA Today put it, should occupy a “place of honor” in a story.
3. Punctuate with quotes: Use quotes to amplify, to drive home a point at the end of a paragraph. A tight quote that completes a nut graf buttresses the theme of your story, as in this trend story about pre-teen dieting.
4. Watch out for the echo effect. Notice how many stories contain quotes that echo what you’ve already written:
The mayor said he’s pleased with the election results, noting that his victory demonstrates his popularity with the voters. “I’m pleased with the results,” said Mayor Foghorn. “It proves my popularity with the voters.”
Echo quotes often mean the writer isn’t giving readers enough credit. Readers don’t need a paraphrase and a quote to understand. One or the other will suffice.
5. Listen. Keep your quotes lean by always reading your story aloud as you make final revisions. Reserve quotation marks for words that reveal character, advance the narrative or drive home a controversial point. Use a blend of quotation and paraphrase. Don’t use every quote in your notebook to prove you did the interviews. That’s not writing; It’s dictation.
6. Follow the one-breath rule. If a quote takes more than one breath to read, it’s probably too long. If you’ve got a good quote that takes more than one breath, insert attribution between the two parts. It will make comprehension easier for the reader.
7. Harness the power of the paraphrase. A teacher once told me that unless a source can say it better than you, paraphrase what they say. You’re the writer after all. A well-constructed paraphrase summing up a quote accurately and punctuated with a brief quote can add a powerful punch to your story.
A great is like a butterfly snatched from the air. It’s quick and flashy. Shoot from between 6 and 20 words to keep the reader interested.
What makes a quote too long has less to do with the number of words and more to do with the content, rhythm, and purpose of the passage. The point is not to go on the quote diet for the sake of it, but to produce stories where every word counts, including those spoken by others.