‘…And you can paraphrase me on that.’

How to deprogram yourself from overquoting

If there’s one lesson we get taught in journalism school, or in our first few years on the job, it’s to make sure you get some quotes high up in the copy. Give the feature story humanity, personality. Give the news story validity. Give it some “voices.” We get this advice rammed down our throats and we are good at absorbing it.

The trouble is, it’s a horrible lesson.

'...And you can paraphrase me on that.'

'...And you can paraphrase me on that.'

What they should have taught us was: Make sure you get some very good, vibrant, meaningful quotes up high in the copy. And unless they’re very good, don’t be in a hurry to use them.

Mediocre, predictable quotes take up space, make your copy fat by echoing what you’ve already told the reader, slow the pace down and detract from your obligation to define and distill the story yourself. They make it impossible to write with authority.

A handful of writers eventually figure this out because they become bored with the standard form of a newspaper story, and they have the conceit to think that they can construct a writing voice that is superior to most of the people the rest of us normally quote.

That’s why a foreign correspondent eschews the standard anecdote/quote lead and instead proclaims the story himself. That’s why a business writer explaining the rise of stock trading via online brokers masters the subject enough to provide his own voice of perspective, as sharp as any expert’s, requiring no one else to step in for the first 11 grafs. That’s why a general-assignment reporter tells the story of a father’s tragic loss with nearly no quotes. That’s why another GA, trying to move the pace of a detailed news feature more quickly, ditches high-up quotes with everyday language in favor of paraphrasing the subjects’ words.

All these reporters rebelled against the tyranny that tells us there have to be quotes high and often in our work. They did it in the service of higher writing values.

As a result, that foreign story said:

HANOI–Monday night, in millions of homes across Vietnam, families took their last baths of the year, to wash off the dirt of past misfortune, and held send-off ceremonies for the kitchen gods who ascend to heaven to give their annual report to the Jade Emperor on the moral conduct of household members.

And when Vietnam awoke today, the land seemed to have been abandoned. City streets were deserted. Every shop was closed. No farmers or water buffalo worked the rice paddies.

To find this industrious, bustling country so suddenly quiet is an odd experience, considering that shopkeepers routinely work 14 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week, and that farmers never take a day off.

But today is the start of Tet, or the Chinese Lunar New Year, heralding the start of spring, when…

Not a single quote appeared in the story. You don’t miss the absence of “voices.” You had the writer’s.

Our best writers are determined to report the story well enough–to understand it well enough–to tell it in a language that often transcends quotes, and makes them less necessary. Too many writers, and too many editors, have yet to wean themselves of using a quote not because it shows truth in a novel way, but because they feel compelled to “show the work,” the way we’re taught when we’re learning long division. And so we get construction like this:

Melinda Strimmer said the allegations may result from a misunderstanding regarding her sister’s habit of helping people in need.

“She likes helping people–maybe too much,” Melinda Strimmer said. “I think that’s how this got started. She was trying to figure out the best course of action for this young man.”

When Josh Meyer told the story of a grieving father’s quest to find the truck driver who allegedly killed his son, he didn’t use a quote until the 14th graf, and only two extremely truncated quotes in the first 26 grafs. He explains:

“The material was so powerful that to use quotes earlier on would have lessened their impact. I thought the quotes needed to be used sparingly, so they didn’t get in the way of the story I was trying to tell. In a way, it’s like talking: If someone talks too much, one tends not to listen as carefully to everything they have to say. If someone barely speaks, it lends importance to those things that they actually do say.

“So I used the quotes to punctuate the story, not to tell it.”

His piece laid out how 5 1/2 years had passed since the tragedy, how the cops always had a suspect, how they had never been able to find him, how the father had thrown himself into a marathon of writing letters and making phone calls and buttonholing authorities, how he enlisted a retired LAPD lieutenant to work on his case. That litany gave the story far more power–and communicated the agony of the father far more effectively–than any quote might have done. When the father was finally quoted, it was merely to let him describe a part of Josh’s narrative. Josh continues:

“I didn’t eliminate quotes for lack of good material. I spent more than five hours with John Burrows, and watched him cry and laugh at memories of his son and grow angry and frustrated at the lack of a police investigation into his alleged killer’s whereabouts. I filled up a notebook with quotes. Some of his quotes, and those of his wife and surviving son, were so compelling that I was on the verge of tears myself. I wanted to put half of them in the story.

“But that would have diminished all of them. And before any of them could be used in a way that gave them the impact they deserved, I needed to set them up-and set up the circumstances surrounding why John Burrows felt the way he did, and why his was pursuing his quest with such determination.

“I included a few more of John Burrow’s best quotes, but then I-and later my editor–pared even those out.”

In the following example, the writer did not use a quote until the 13th graf, confident enough to tell you the truth she had discerned:

They call this place Esperanza–Spanish for “hope.”

Here, a garment worker tends his stalks of corn, dreaming of his old farm in Mexico.

A retired attorney picks fragrant shoots of rosemary to use for dinner.

A teacher weeds at dusk, turning over the soil as the hum of the city fades with nightfall.

They work the land side by side. They fight the same weeds. They celebrate harvests together. And these days, they are sadly gathering in the winter crop, knowing it will be the last.

Esperanza is a community garden that took root on a small lot in downtown…

A few years back, the Washington Monthly published a number of essays about flaws in contemporary journalism. One writer, Jonathan Rowe, who works at a think tank, complained:

“The tendentious, numb-brained quality of much American journalism today is largely a product of its forms. Daily journalism is frozen in a set of rituals and conventions that preclude nuance and provide formalistic cover for lazy thinking and reporting.”

Among his complaints:

“The quote has become the main crutch of American journalism and a source of continual idiocy in reporting. No statement is too obvious or banal…Henry Hyde says that impeachment is a grave and solemn constitutional duty. Clinton’s pollster says the public wants Congress to move on to other things. What else are they going to say?

“Quotes generally are a form of show and tell. They do not convey insight or information. They enable the reporter to say, ‘See! I did some reporting.’ See! I’m getting both sides.'”

Rowe’s suggestion:

“Cut them drastically. Reporters should take responsibility for the truth of their own story. They should determine the truth as best they can, in the time available, and then tell that story. They should quote only when it adds real insight or information…My friend Sam Smith of the Progressive Review has proposed a simple solution: Give the authorities, experts and opinionizers their own page. The front page should tell us what happened, the way the old colonial newspapers did.”

Obviously, you wouldn’t take this advice literally if you were, say, writing a profile. But the philosophy is what counts: Get to know the story better, and use your own voice–your own wisdom. Don’t be chicken. Don’t be lazy. Don’t be afraid the reader will tune out a story without a quote in the fifth graf. The reader will unconsciously thank you for increasing the directness and authority of the story.

Remember the valuable middle ground between quotes and no quotes: The paraphrase, in which you can replace a dull 17-word quote with a sharp five-word summary.

Take, for example, a story about a neighborhood pollution problem that some residents blamed for several cancer cases. We’d done small news stories, but when a reporter decided to personalize the problem, she found she had to cover a lot of ground and that quotes, especially at the top, would get in the way.

So she paraphrased, as underlined:

Mary Saucedo was giving an old neighborhood friend a ride home one afternoon last summer in Bell Gardens. They hadn’t seen each other in years, and the woman inquired about Saucedo’s three sons.

I only have two now, Saucedo responded quietly. My youngest, Joseph, died of cancer two years ago.

The woman was startled by the coincidence. I just lost my nephew to cancer, she said. Didn’t your son go to Suva Elementary School like my nephew? Did you know they think the factory next door has cancer-causing chemicals?

No, Saucedo said, shaken, I didn’t. Nor did she know that several other Suva students were dying of cancer in her old part of Bell Gardens. Or that on her old block alone, her former next-door neighbor had been diagnosed with leukemia and a boy who used to live down the street had bone cancer.

The more she learned, the more she wept.

Saucedo was the latest member of a sad, frustrated, confused knot of working-class families who have slowly come to believe that their individual heartbreak is, in fact, an act of environmental betrayal.

They believe the cancer that plagues their neighborhood comes from hexavalent chromium and other toxic pollutants released into the soil and air by two now-closed chrome-plating factories next door to the Suva Elementary and Intermediate schools, separated from the playground by only a chain-link fence.

They have tallied the misery: 22 students and six Suva teachers have been diagnosed with…

The dirty little secret here is that most people aren’t that quotable, even when their emotions or intellects are. Raise the bar. Eschewing all but the best quotes will make you push yourself harder to find new, more vibrant and direct ways of telling your stories. Next time you prepare to quote someone in a story, run a few questions by yourself: Am I doing this primarily for the sake of using a quote? Does it add anything I couldn’t explain quicker or better myself? Could I paraphrase it? If you decide you’re going to use a quote, ask yourself two more questions: Can I strip some of the language out–i.e. use only one sentence rather than two or three? Can I remember, when appropriate, to let the reader know how the source said it, i.e. softly or warily or resentfully?

STYLE POINTS

Three examples of how hard you have to work to make an esoteric subject or concept digestible to the reader.

We start with defining the mood of investors during a stock market plunge by employing an unlikely but universal image:

NEW YORK-There’s always a point in a Roadrunner cartoon when Wile E. Coyote’s Acme rocket runs out of fuel and he sits frozen for a long moment in midair.

But he never actually starts to fall until he looks down.

Investors, like poor Wile E., finally may have started looking down.

Signs are growing that the collective mood of individual investors has turned more pessimistic in recent weeks, as the stock market has slid from its highs in mid-July, market watchers say.

Then there’s the problem of something that is fascinating but rooted in obscurity for most people. Here, two techniques are put to work simultaneously: (1) Pulling the reader in by writing in the second person, creating an implied conversation; and (2) further encouraging the reader to use his imagination by describing the distant scene in terms of L.A.:

BUDAPEST, Hungary–Let’s assume for a moment, just for the fun of it, that a direct descendant of George III has shown up in Los Angeles. George III, you’ll recall, was on the throne when the American colonies won their independence from Britain.

Now, suppose this royal newcomer just happens to use his famous ancestor’s name: George of Great Britain. The first thing he does when he hits town is take an executive position at one of the major studios, a job he promptly turns into a bully pulpit for his political views. He marries an imported German duchess; next, he is named a U.S. ambassador at large. People start in with “Hail the king!” when he cruises Rodeo Drive. When journalists invite his views on the resurrection of the monarchy, he responds with a tantalizing “Never say never.”

Wouldn’t all that strike you as just the tiniest bit odd?

In fact, that’s more or less the spectacle that Hungarians have been enjoying in their newly democratic homeland ever since Gyorgy von Hapsburg blew into town and started carving out niches for himself in the nation’s business, diplomatic and society circles. Gyorgy, you see, is a member of the House of Hapsburg, one of the greatest sovereign dynasties of Europe until its empire was dismantled eight decades ago.

And it’s not only 33-year-old Gyorgy: From Scandinavia to the southernmost reaches of the changing and unsettled continent that is post-Cold War Europe, Hapsburgs are turning up in interesting and unexpected places, positing the idea that their family’s imperial history holds answers to some of the most pressing questions of modern times.

Hapsburgs are keeping up the age-old family tradition of strategic marriage, tantalizing monarchical revivalists and striving through electoral politics to shape the development of the continent, which is inching toward unification.

Now, from the obscure we go to the abstract–the environment, turned here into a l contrast between perception and reality, written with great authority and an informality that gives the piece a gossip columnist’s “inside story” approach to nature:

This is California as America knows it. Sun-dappled hills of golden grasses undulate into the distance, dotted with herbs and occasional wildflowers.

It is the kind of landscape made famous in old Western films, when the cowboys galloped their horses through the chaparral.

Now here’s the real story of this wild-land vista:

Most of the rippling gold grasses came from Spain, Italy, Greece, Morocco. That thick patch of pale green fennel is an insidious intruder from Southern Europe. The fabled tumbleweed, supposed icon of Western wildlife, is really an immigrant from Eurasia.

Hard to find is gray-green sage, with its soothing scent. Instead, wispy fennel exudes the sweetly pungent odor of licorice as alien plants squeeze out native scrub and chaparral.

”It’s definitely an invasion. It’s a very subtle one, that happens out of the limelight, and without people realizing it’s happening,” said Fred Roberts, 41, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service botanist who grew up a few miles from this valley in San Juan Capistrano and has watched acre after acre of native habitat overrun by opportunistic flora.

As benign and even lovely as they might seem, invasive plants are upsetting the balance of nature in California. They jump over garden walls to squeeze out native plants and threaten the endangered birds, butterflies and mammals that depend on those plants. They fuel desert wildfires, withering such beloved natives as the Joshua tree, and reshape dramatic coastal dunes.

Nearly one-fifth of the plants growing in California’s supposedly ‘natural’ land today are considered exotic.

Just about all of us have had a hand in their arrival. Exotic flora have been intentionally planted on open lands by…

Finally, two examples of language (underlined) that genuinely describes characters–language that, combined with good reporting, does far more to tell a reader what a person is like than a mere quote.

First, from a profile of then-famed actress Jenna Elfman:

Last Sunday before her matinee performance, Elfman found time to take a ballet lesson, get a massage, some lunch and spend an hour practicing the drums–a Christmas gift. With a personal style that manages to make you feel like you’ve stumbled upon a carelessly capped bottle of nitroglycerin, Elfman moves fast, talks fast and thinks faster

And from a profile of a key player in the development of the personal computer:

To this day, Alan Kay is the kind of person who communicates an impression of pure motion even when he is sitting down. Once you get him talking, he performs what he calls a “brain dump,” years of accumulated knowledge and synthesis pouring forth in a flood of narrative in which the protagonists are Alan Kay and the startling and visionary ideas he holds dear (many of them still deplorably unrealized), and their adversaries are managers, executives, bean counters, corporate boards, schoolteachers and all others who regard the unshackled imagination as a menace rather than a gift.