Folks, it’s time to talk about quotes. “Getting quote” is one of the most time-honored practices in our profession. Nothing wrong with that, as long as the quotes drive the story, or show character and originality. But that’s not what I’m seeing. Too many boring, bureaucratic, take-me-no-place quotes – “room-emptiers” – pop up in your writing, no matter whether it’s news, features or live-ins. So many that I was about to suggest an exercise in which no one would be allowed to quote directly, only to paraphrase in crisp, compelling language.
Fortunately, I found examples of why we’re always looking for a great quote. Marlene Peralta knew that the words of steam-blast victim Gregory McCullough said it all:
“We would have been boiled like lobsters,” McCullough said. “If we would have stayed in the truck, we wouldn’t have survived.”
As soon as Marlene heard McCullough say that, she knew she wanted to structure her story around it. “It was such a visual and dramatic quote. When I cover stories, when I’m interviewing people, there are always lines that stand out and get stuck in your head. I always underline them although some times I don’t use them. I am always looking for short powerful statements and this happens to be one of them.”
Joshua Cinelli spent nearly two hours at a peace protest staged by people in their 80s and 90s and listened closely to what they yelled to passing motorists. The quotes put the reader into Josh’s opening scene in a memorable way:
It took a while for the cavalry to saddle up, but the Kittay House peace contingent was in rare form once they were in the thick of it.
“Don’t just sit there! Honk for peace!” Zelda Fassler yelled at the people in their cars waiting for the lights to change at the corner of Webb Avenue and Kingsbridge Road. A cacophony of honking horns answered her.
“Take down their license plate numbers if they don’t honk,” joked Fassler, a resident at Kittay House, a Jewish Home and Hospital independent senior living facility just across from the VA Hospital.
Fassler and other residents have been promoting peace at the same intersection on Tuesdays at 3:15 p.m. for close to a year.
Josh spent 25 minutes talking to a 92-year-old protestor who provided enough color to fill a notebook. The hard work showed up in splendid quotes and absorbing details:
Walking back to Kittay House, Sam Baum, a sharp 92-year-old, held a civics lesson in modern warfare, interspersing his comments with “You follow me?” and “You get the picture?’’ Dressed in a bomber jacket and a shirt and tie, he recounted from his 27 years of working with the Navy, in uniform and as a civilian, the merits and necessity of war. But now, Baum said, peace is the only option. “There is no alternative,” he said. “Mankind is in a position to destroy itself.”
Josh explained his strategy on how to get and use the best quotes: “I always want the quotes I use to drive the action, to be descriptive of who said it and to be somewhat unique. The hardest part is to train your ear to hone in when something that fits that criteria surfaces or to be patient enough to draw it out.”
For the last words on this subject, let’s turn to writing coach Jack Hart, who was fond of Emerson’s quote, “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.” Hart notes:
“Little of what most speakers say bears quoting. Speech wanders. It repeats itself. It wallows in the mundane. Unless someone’s saying something truly colorful, authoritative, or revealing, let your pencil rest. Nothing dulls up a piece of writing like a stream of boring quotations.’’