Ask TON: Using Quotes

Welcome back for another installment of Ask TON. (Click here to see previous installments.)

Today’s question: A recent NASW post quotes a Slate editor as saying, “We hate quotations at Slate. We almost never use quotes. They don’t do anything. They waste the readers’ time. Only use quotes when you can’t say it better yourself.” Wow! What do other writers and editors think about using quotes? And what do they think about quotes as readers themselves? [editors’  note: The NASW post noted that the Slate editor also said, “I’m against fact-checking because I think it encourages error. The items I’ve made mistakes in are when I’ve been fact-checked.”]

Slate editor Daniel Engber:

As an editor at Slate, I’m professionally obligated to share this sentiment, at least in part. But I’d share it anyway—quotes can be a particular blight in science columns.

There are some situations where I would certainly endorse the use of quotes. In afeature, it can be important to let the characters speak for themselves. Not only can their language help delineate their personalities, but the presentation of dialogue makes a long piece easier to read. For shorter pieces– reported essays, straight news, opinion, etc.– I would say quotes are useful when a source happens to deliver information in a particularly colorful or clear way, in which case you might want to borrow the phrase with proper attribution. I also like quotes taken from a primary text, where the original formulation happens to be particularly telling in terms of its form and content.

In other contexts, quotes can be a problem. My least favorite is when a writer gives an authoritative-sounding quote from someone obscure. This goes double in science journalism: Don’t tell the reader something, then quote Dr. So-and-So from the University of Blah-Blah to back it up. If you’re relying on a random “Dr.” from some “University” to add credibility to your reporting or argument– i.e., if your reporting or argument don’t seem plausible on their own terms– then you’re already in bad trouble. (Also: Why should I trust Dr. So-and-So? There are plenty of quacks around who love talking to the press, and lots of universities that hire fools and lunatics.) The best way to secure a reader’s trust is through a clear and straightforward accounting of the facts: Make it clear, in the way that you write and what you have to say, that you’ve done your research and talked to the right people for the story. Don’t hide behind someone else’s agreements or affirmations.

If it’s a bad idea to use quotes as a crutch—or a hedge against inadequate reporting—then it’s even worse to use them as filler material, larding up a column with rephrasings of basic information. As an editor and a reader, it makes me wonder if the author had nothing more to say for himself or herself.

In the quote (!) that yielded this question for TON, Jacob Weisberg was expressing an official view that goes back to Slate’s founding by Michael Kinsley in 1996. Things have changed a bit over the years, so these days you’ll find some standard-issue quotes in the magazine from time to time. But there’s still a “classic Slate format,” in the science section and elsewhere, that eschews the kind of quote-mongering typical of newspapers. When a science writer sends me a draft with a lot of quotes in it, I get the impression that he or she hasn’t spent much time reading the magazine. And that’s a bad sign…

Freelance science writer Helen Fields:

When I read that post, I thought, “Wow, Slate hates my two favorite things: fact checkers and quotes.” I love quotes. I’m very good at saying things myself. But the people I interview have unique viewpoints that come through in their particular word choices and ways of saying things.

I once quoted a penguin expert on the topic of finding the dark smear of penguin colonies on satellite photographs of Antarctica: “The poo just sort of stands out at you.” Sure, I could have paraphrased that, but it’s funnier that the scientist says it, and also that he’s British and says “poo” instead of “poop.” And the “you” reaches out and engages the reader.

The quote accomplishes things that I, myself, couldn’t have done. Or didn’t want to. I don’t want to be the only character in my stories. I’m not the authority; my sources are, and I think their voices belong in the story.

Nature Medicine news editor Elie Dolgin:

To quote the early 20th Century American humorist Robert Benchley, “The surest way to make a monkey of a man is to quote him.” Benchley may have been joking that people often sound like fools, but, for the most part, they just sound like real people. Quotes are a great tool for giving a sense of a source’s personality. They provide emphasis to details, evoke images that stick in the reader’s mind and provide a conversational humanity to a story. They also provide a level of transparency, demonstrating that the reporter has done his or her due diligence by talking to, at a minimum, the number of quoted sources (or paraphrased ones if ideas are at least attributed to named sources).However, quotes are often dispatched in a lazy fashion from writers who string together batches of statements from the mouths of their sources and pass that off without a cohesive narrative or thesis. Quotes, which necessarily come with lengthy affiliations, also slow flow at the expense of readability. As a result, non-quoted pieces can sometimes provide a more informative and entertaining read where the writer’s voice takes center stage. Still, with those kinds of pieces, you sacrifice the humanity of the people involved. Plus, the reader has to trust that the writer has done the proper reporting and fact-checking to provide the authoritarian voice they bring to a non-quoted source—something that is increasingly difficult to gauge as the line blurs between blogging and journalism. Clearly, they’re a double edged sword. But please don’t quote me on any this!

Scientific American associate editor David Biello:

When it comes to science, nothing can enliven the dull detail of research methods like a quirky quote from the scientists themselves. To work without quotes is to discard a very useful tool, one that can humanize what can be a very abstract field of inquiry, or simply add clarity or wit. It’s like saying I love movies but only those without dialogue.

That said, some writers can over-rely on quotes (guilty!) It’s as if we want to say: hey, I talked to four different scientists about this one piece of research and, by golly, I’m going to quote all of them. So there! That’s not good. Quotes should be used judiciously, and only when they add something to the story. Quotes should punctuate an idea rather than explain it outright (there are exceptions to every rule). If brevity is the soul of wit, to paraphrase is often to make wittier and therefore more compelling and easier to understand. After all, to quote another editor I’ve worked with: “a quote can be a wonderful thing, but it comes at a price…. Verbiage.” (Plus it makes you wonder, doesn’t it, what else was said in that ellipsis, no?)

Of course, Slate is a special case. It’s metier is the blog and the blog is essentially one long (sometimes rambling) quote from the writer. It can confuse things to start throwing other’s words into that flow. That said, some of the best bloggers whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with or reading (you know who you are), know exactly when a provocative quote can work wonders. And a news story without quotes is likely to be as dull dull dull as, well, the incipient bits of first drafts of history.

Quotes are a window into the thinking and personalities of the people involved in the story you’re trying to tell as a journalist. Abandoning quotes is abandoning the attempt to give them a voice in their own story. And what purpose does that serve?

Photo at top by Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr.

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9 Comments

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  2. We use quotes because other people are smarter than us. That people at Slate think they know everything is no surprise, but it’s still a shame to see it laid out so explicitly.

  3. I agree with most of the above that quotes should be used when they impart something that the writer couldn’t herself. But it also depends on the type of publication. When I write for Medscape Today I rarely use quotes — most from experts or papers are too clunky. In blogs, sometimes. But in my narrative non-fiction book, the quotes, the dialog, are what propel the story. Actually, the fun part was gathering the quotes (by interviews, lectures, and following people around) and seeing how the story emerged from them.

    On a related note, I was astonished that the publisher of the above-mentioned book did not have a fact checker! After all my years in magazine writing, I simply assumed they would. My textbooks do not have fact checkers either — we rely on feedback from each edition to revise the next.

  4. Another outlet that tends to eschew quotes is The Economist. Long before blogs existed they took a more editorial-like (to an American) if extremely well-reported, voice, and I have been proud to work with them.

    I think they do it for similar reasons to Slate, though I also get the sense it’s part of providing a bit of a universal “voice” for the publication.

    And they have fact-checkers, and I always found them a good idea, because I have never had a case where a fact-checker didn’t catch something I never thought of, asking about something that seemed obvious to me but might not be to a reader.

  5. My J-school science writing prof believed that the fewer quotes in a story, the better, and zero was ideal. My editor at Time, who trained under this prof, felt the same way. It made me want to put my head in a vise. Sure, the excesses Dan describes are..excessive. But in anything other than a blog or an opinion piece, reducing the quotes to zero removes a vital source of color (as others have noted).

  6. Kat McGowan says:

    Good quotes are like meter changes in a pop song–shifts where the rhythm changes a bit to surprise you and catch your ear. A Susan Orlean story in the New Yorker about mules quotes a guy who can’t stop buying them:
    “‘I’ll tell you what it is,’ he said, smiling, as he stroked the pendulous lower lip of the little mule. ‘It’s a goddamn disease.'” How great is that! But clunky or boring quotes are awful.

    The aside about fact-checkers bothers me more. Fact checkers have saved my hide multiple times as a writer and editor, and while they do sometimes make mistakes, they are usually easy to clear up, unlike the mistakes that writers and editors make.

  7. Abandoning quotes is total anti-journalism. The Slate editor in question must be crackers.

  8. One of the professors in my science journalism program summed it up nicely (do you mind if I quote him?): “Never use quotes to explain.”

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