How to use quotations in your writing – 10 expert tips

Black Microphone Quotations can make an article, press release or case study real or they can make them deathly dull. As a writer, it’s your choice. You have complete control over how you quote people and a few simple techniques can make all the difference.

  1. Go to the top. One reason to include a quotation is to add authority and credibility. Another is to include an opinion in a piece that is trying to be (or appear) objective. Either way, it pays to get the most senior person possible. A quote from a CEO is more credible and authoritative than one from some guy at the company’s PR firm. One exception to this rule is when writing about something inventive or techy – in this case it’s much better to get a quote from the top geek than the top suit. Finally, readers tend to believe people like themselves more than they believe journalists (at least in the UK) or PR people (anywhere) so a quote from someone who does something is better than a quote from someone who talks about it.
  2. Don’t frankenquote. Don’t make up a quote for someone based on bits and pieces strung together in an epic hype-ridden cliché. This is a frankenquote. PR companies do this all the time in their press releases and every journalist knows that these quotes are bogus and virtually unusable. Interviews matter. Talk to real people. A good interview is the best source of a good quote.
  3. Cut out the boring bits. A quotation can be a big stumbling block for the reader. They involve a lot of extra punctuation which slows the eye down and a change of tone and voice which can trip up someone who isn’t reading with perfect attention. You can minimise these effects by only quoting the bits that are interesting. Pick the bits of an interview that illustrate the point you are making, add weight to your story or which encapsulate the interviewee’s opinion. Use as little of the quotation as possible, but not less. Use an ellipsis (…) to show where you have removed padding.
  4. Micro-quote. Sometimes a very, very short quote can be the most effective. “They get you in the gut,” said Matthew.
  5. Hansard rules. For newspapers and magazines, editing quotations so that they differ from a verbatim transcript of the interview can be a no-no. In this case, selection rather than editing is sometimes required to get a good quote. For corporate work, where the final result will be reviewed by the interviewee or their proxies, a little editing can help. I don’t like to make stuff up (see Frankenquoting above) so I focus on trying sharpen and clarify the points that the interviewee was making. It also means writing what they meant to say, free of grammatical mistakes, repetition, hesitation etc.
  6. Quote first, attribute second. Don’t start sentences with the attribution and then the quote. (e.g. “Matthew Stibbe said ‘don’t do it.’”)  This is a warning sign to the reader that a quote is coming and they are likely to skip it. Instead, open with the quote and tack on the attribution afterwards. (e.g. “’Don’t do it,’ said Matthew Stibbe.”) Never use an adverb when reporting a quotation. (e.g. don’t say “… said Matthew Stibbe angrily.”) Said is usually better than warned, advised, commented etc.
  7. Continuing quotations. Within the same paragraph, you don’t need to attribute subsequent quotations unless you quote from someone else. In subsequent paragraphs, you should add the person’s name if you quote them again. Whether you use Mr. Surname, Firstname plus Surname or just the Surname depends on your house style but be consistent. I prefer just the surname. You don’t need to repeat that tedious ten-word job title every time. (You know the one that goes ‘Global Vice-President for Administrative Affairs and Popcorn.’) If you quote several people in the same article you may need to give the reader a clue about who you are quoting, for example by adding the company name. (e.g. “This should help the reader,” said Articulate’s Matthew Stibbe.”)
  8. Reported speech. Sometimes reported speech is easier to add than a quotation. It lets you maintain your own writing style. You can write it more concisely and make it fit your line of argument. It’s also a nice change of pace for the reader. Don’t be afraid of it. Especially for short quotations.
  9. Quotes as kickers. It’s very common in magazines to use the interviewee’s money quote as the kicker (final sentences or paragraph) of the article. It relives you of the responsibility of writing something pithy and clever. It also lets you close with an opinion without editorialising and hence satisfies most editors. For an example, check out this randomly-chosen Wired article which has two quotes as a kicker, one in quotation marks and one reported. A double-whammy.
  10. Quotes as ledes. You can also use quotes to open a story. (A lede is the first sentence or sentences of an article.) Here, however, the challenge is to create suspense rather than resolve it. Quotes as ledes are rarer but if you get a good one, use it.

(For more tips about improving your writing, check out my FREE eBook – 30 Days to Better Business Writing.)

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7 Responses to How to use quotations in your writing – 10 expert tips

  1. Honza November 16, 2009 at 8:56 am #

    Frankenquoting is a major pain when it comes to writing press releases. In defense of the flacks, sometimes we come up with a quote that corresponds to rules of proper writing and the client turns it into something like this:

    “We will proactively leverage our dominant position on the market to pick the low hanging fruit and offer relevant solutions to our clients.” By the way, this is a real quote.

    • Matthew Stibbe November 16, 2009 at 9:11 am #

      You’re kidding me. That’s the worst Frankenquote I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen a few). Wow!

  2. Clare Lynch November 16, 2009 at 10:43 am #

    Can I add another tip?

    Always use “said”, not “commented” or “observed” or “noted” etc. So many writers, particularly in corporate comms, seem to think words like these are synonyms for “said” and use them because they’ve been told repetition is bad. Of course, to the sensitive reader they all have connotations that can make the quote sound ridiculous.

    • Matthew Stibbe November 16, 2009 at 10:49 am #

      Clare – I couldn’t agree more about synonyms for ‘said’. You’re right. I mention it in point six but it really needs underlining and highlighting with a bright yellow pen for some writers. Occasionally, ‘added,’ ‘explained’ etc. are okay in the right context – usually when you have had to edit some of the quote and you need to explain what kind of a quote it is or when you are re-introducing an interviewee later in the text. But otherwise ‘said’ is perfectly okay. It’s more like punctuation than a word when used like this.

  3. Neil Baker November 17, 2009 at 12:45 pm #

    I’ll add one: never quote someone who is stating facts: save your quotes for opinion, colour etc.

    • Matthew Stibbe November 17, 2009 at 12:47 pm #

      @Neil. Yes, I’d go along with that. Good suggestion, thanks.

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