Say What? A Quick Guide to Using Quotes

By Terreece M. Clarke

Most articles would look pretty naked without quotes. Quotes give a human voice  and flavor to the article and gives the reader a break from “just the facts.” Because quotes are so important to an article, let’s make sure we make your quotes count.

Use Great Quotes

It’s not enough to have a quote, the quote has to contribute something more to the article than just confirming information. For example, a good quote for an article about using Twitter could be:

“I’ve used Twitter to stay connected with friends and land new clients,” Bob Johnson said. “It is also the best way to get the word out on business promotions. It’s increased hits to my web site by 82 percent!”

A bad quote would be:

“Twitter is great,” Bob Johnson said. “I use it all the time.”

Before using a quote, channel your inner teenager. Read the quote and if “So what?,” “Whatever.” or “And?” pop into your mind, it’s not a good one.

Interview for Great Quotes

When interviewing, writers concentrate on getting information they can use and that should include quotes. Most of the time when you’re interviewing someone, they’ll say something and you know instantly that’s the quote you’ve been waiting to come across. If the interview has progressed for a while and you still don’t have a really good quote that adds depth to the article, ask the interviewee to sum something up into one point, i.e “If you could tell men one thing about prostate cancer, what would it be?”

Don’t pop the balloon

There’s nothing worse than taking the zing out of your own quote. Some may think they are shoring up a point, but they’re really just spoiling a good quote and being repetitive.

BAD: Many people find Smurfs not only irritating, they are frightened of them.

“Smurfs irritate and scare me,” Bob Johnson said.

GOOD: While most people love to see their little blue faces, some people in the forest are less enthusiastic.

“Smurfs irritate and scare me,” Bob Johnson said. “Those hats and the creepy songs. It’s just weird.”

Mean what they said

Quotation marks should only be used around a direct quote. When you use those symbols (“,”) you are telling the reader that this is exactly what the person said. Make sure your notes and recordings are accurate. This is what gets writers and journalists in trouble and then shakes the public’s confidence in what they read.

If you didn’t get the exact wording or if you change the wording, but the result is faithful to what the person said, then it is an indirect quote and there is no additional punctuation need. If you are adding something to the quote, like a word the person left out add these marks: [ ], with the added word in between. If you leave something out because the quote is very long include these (…).

“Bob is a complete butt,” Jeff Johnson said Thursday at the city council meeting.

“[The] time to act is now,” said Cynthia Gumption.

“I don’t how we’re going to do it…it’s just going to be a rough time,” said Donna Winer.

INDIRECT QUOTE: Oversight is needed to prevent fraud and waste Mayor Lawful said.

Mayor Lawful actually said: We gotta watch ’em to make sure they don’t steal and toss away stuff. (Which actually would have been a great quote.)

Don’t fire off your big gun too often

Don’t get quote happy. When used too often in an article quotes lose their power. It’s like a Hollywood starlet. The first time they flash a private part the world is in a tizzy. After the 30th time, the audience is numb and doesn’t notice.

Quotes add flavor, depth and authenticity to an article. Use them well and you’re on the right track to a great article.






2 responses
  1. Rachael Avatar

    Hi Terreece – it’s great to see someone tackling this topic. Misusing quotes can ruin an otherwise interesting and insightful article and you’ve got some great tips here for avoiding the pitfalls.

    The biggest bugbear for me is when a journalist uses a quote to explain the facts. That’s just lazy journalism – it’s your job to explain how the product or project etc. works, not your interviewee’s. Quotes, as you rightly said, should add comment and flavour to the facts and give the opinion that the neutral journalist can’t.

  2. Terreece Clarke Avatar

    Hey Rachael,

    Thanks! It always bothers when someone spoils the quote before hand. I’m always groaning when reading the paper :0) It’s like telling someone there’s a surprise party inside and then sending them in. Boo. :0)

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