On Writing: Quote, But Only If You Must

By Mike Feinsilber

Historian John Toland, in Battle: Story of the Bulge, tells the story: December, 1944, Bastogne, Belgium. The troops of the 101st Airborne are surrounded. A band of four German couriers arrive under a flag of truce and demand the Americans surrender in two hours or face annihilation. When told, Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe says, “Us surrender? Oh, nuts,” and goes about his business.

But the Germans want an answer.  McAuliffe asks his commanders what he should reply. One says the general’s first comment sounded pretty good. And so the message went back to the Germans:

“From the American Commander,
“To the German Commander,

And for the rest of his life, McAuliffe is known for his one-word reply.

Some quotes are too good not to use. But, alas, most are not.

When Sarah Palin said “You betcha” the first time, of course she had to be quoted. Or when Bill Clinton said, “I didn’t inhale.” But the mundane, the ordinary, the clumsy, the indecipherable, the quote that was canned in the backroom of a political campaign—those are quotes we serve readers by ignoring.

Face it: People speak jaggedly. They go back and forth. They begin many sentences with, “I think .…” They revise as they speak. They use insider’s terms. They use euphemisms, like “passed away.” They are inelegant and ineloquent. They make stuff up. It serves those speakers and your readers better to use paraphrasing to say what they meant not what they said.

Junior reporters think they must quote sources to prove they said what their story says they said. So we get journalism like this, which I’ve just made up: The spokesman said no course of action has been ruled out. “Every option is on the table,” he said. “We haven’t closed the door to anything.” Or: He said to win Obama must carry either North Carolina or Ohio. “I think he’ll lose unless he takes the Buckeye State or the Tar Heel state,” he said. Or: The coach said if that doesn’t work the team would try an alternative, adding:  “In that event, we’ll go to Plan B.”

Readers are impatient. They expect new information. Quoting can be useful—no one would write, “General McAuliffe rejected the Nazis’ demand out of hand” and let it go at that. But quotes have to add information. Or they have to say more than the speaker’s words convey—the mood of the moment, the emotions of the speaker, the stakes of the situation.  Mostly they have to be immediately understandable. If a quote requires a followup paragraph of explanation, it’s not serving anyone.

My rule of thumb: if the speaker says it so interestingly that you can’t resist using a quote, use the quote.  But if you can say it better, paraphrase. Paraphrasing is the writer’s best friend. Paraphrasing is the reader’s best friend. And, believe it or not, paraphrasing is the speaker’s best friend; you’re letting her be understood

And the rule of my other thumb:  If you find yourself typing a quote that requires ellipses and words of explanation in brackets to make it make sense, make it be gone. The reader doesn’t need the trouble of figuring it out. Anyway, ellipses make readers wonder what you’ve left out, and why.

I’ve run out of thumbs, but here’s another rule: Quotes that come from documents rather than a speaker’s mind and mouth almost always are stiff, vague, lifeless, routine, self-serving and not worth quoting.

To dull, bloated quotes that only add girth to your writing, I stand with General McAuliffe: Nuts.

For 50 years, Mike Feinsilber wrote and edited for United Press International in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Harrisburg, Newark, New York, Saigon and Washington and for The Associated Press in Washington. After retiring, he served as the writing coach in the AP’s Washington bureau. He now thinks he overused quotes.

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