The right quotes can enliven and humanize a story and help make it clear, credible and dramatic. Yet many quotations in media writing are dull, inscrutable and even ungrammatical. (The writer’s defense? Well, that’s what he said.)
Overall, as with writing in general, the good quotation’s worst enemy is wordy, arcane phrasing:
“The term originated in the early 20th century,” he said, “when evolutionary theory had it that most genes had a good variant that was by far the most common in the population, and one or a very few, very rare, harmful forms.”
Simplify and paraphrase: The term originated in the early 20th century, when evolutionary theory supposed that good genetic variants were common, and harmful forms were rare.
Sometimes poorly executed mechanics create “whiplash” writing — for example, when writers mix such elements as paraphrase, direct quote, narrative, tense and pronouns:
Murdoch said there had been a “cover-up” at the paper, but that he was a victim rather than an accomplice. He added that the phone hacking scandal will be a “blot on my reputation” for the rest of his life.
Restore consistency with a paraphrase: “Murdoch said there had been a “cover-up” at the paper, but that he was a victim rather than an accomplice. He added that the phone hacking scandal would be a blot on his reputation for the rest of his life.
More tense problems:
Shadid’s father said in an interview after the book was published he was “so overcome with emotion when he looks at his son’s words that he can read only a few pages at once.”
Again, paraphrase to fix pronouns and garbled tense:
Shadid’s father said after the book was published he was so overcome with emotion when he looked at his son’s words that he could read only a few pages at a time.
Blather is always unwelcome:
He agreed with his star player in terms of the tough season the team had to endure. “It was tough in terms of adjusting and juggling all the positions. We didn’t have many easy games. It was a struggle every night,” he said.
Prune quotes tightly so they further the story line. Avoid restating the quote in the narrative — even if it’s restated in different words. Every paragraph should advance a story with fresh information. That kind of compression has energy:
He agreed the season was hard. “Juggling all the positions…was a struggle every night,” he said.
When asked if there might be a possibility of a return performance in Dallas, she simply shrugs her shoulders and responds: “I go where the money is.”
Shrugs her shoulders: What else could she shrug? Avoid such redundancies as “nodded his head” or “winked his eye.” We shrug, nod, wink. Period. Better: Will she revisit Dallas? She shrugs. “I go where the money is.”
Another common mechanical problem is repetition in quote and exposition:
He said he saw red when she told him he was a nuisance. “She told me I was getting to be a nuisance,” he said, “and I admit I saw red.”
Is there an echo in here? Let whoever says it best say it once, whether source or writer.
Yet another problem in mechanics is the odd split: “I want,” she announced at their anniversary dinner, “a divorce.”
There’s no shortage of errors in quotes: “They arrested him at his hotel after he tried to pass counterfeit $18 bills, she said.”
No $18 bill is genuine. All are counterfeit. Delete “counterfeit” through ellipsis, or paraphrase: She said police arrested him after he tried to pass $18 bills.
“She said he confessed when the cops placed a metal calendar on his head and wired it to a photocopier, then put a note that read ‘False’ in the copy tray and made a copy whenever they thought he was lying. They said it was a lie detector.”
They put a colander on his head, not a calendar.
He said, “I’m also loathe to hold up anonymous comment as representative of anything but the transformative power of anonymity.”
Loath is the adjective; loathe is the verb.
“What’s wrong with our country is we’ve lost any sense of spree décor,” he said.
Well, pardon our French. It may have sounded like “spree décor,” but what he said was surely “esprit de corps” — a group’s sense of solidarity or camaraderie. On reflection, this is probably a spellchecker “correction.” (Artificial intelligence is wonderful, yes. But sometimes we need the real thing.)
In short, the major problems with quotations are the same as with writing in general: wordiness, muddiness, pretentiousness. Speech is notoriously wordy; that’s why we prune quotes. After all, everything that is in our story is in our story. But we never have to accept poor quotations. We always have the paraphrase.
More on that next time.