Tips of the Trainer: Quotable Quotes

Handy hints on how to get the best quotes and use them effectively

It is impossible to underestimate the power of a good quote. Correctly used, they can stick in readers’ minds for years.

“There is no whitewash at the White House” by President Richard Nixon is one that springs to mind. Bill Clinton coined another good one: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”

But the value of quotes can be diminished if they are overused or misused. How many times do we write “he said” in the fourth par of the story, and then keep on quoting all the way to the end? This is lazy journalism.

I read a council prelim story the other day in which the reporter quoted about 250 words straight from a planning report. Again, lazy journalism. I don’t suppose the reporter understood a word of it, let alone the reader.

Here are some tips to help us get the best out of quotes:

1. A good quote comes from carrying out a good interview. We must learn to ask open, unusual questions that will produce strong answers, rather than put words into people’s mouths.

2. Don’t “quote grab” – ie pick out “odd” words and “put them” in quotes. This practice serves no useful purpose and slows the reader down by cluttering up the copy with unnecessary punctuation. It doesn’t make the quotes any safer legally, either (other than in reporting allegations in court copy), because if we publish the quote, we are still responsible for it if it is libellous.

3. When choosing quotes, don’t quote facts. There is no point in writing: Det Insp Peter Smith said: “Two men carrying shotguns entered the bank at 10.05am.” Instead, quote opinions and reactions – Det Insp Peter Smith said: “This was the most daring bank robbery I have ever come across.”

4. Don’t use quotes for the sake of it. As a general rule, if you can say something better than the speaker can, reword it (accurately) and use reported speech. But if they can say something better than you can, quote them.

5. Identify the speaker at the start of the quote, so that the reader knows who is speaking.

6. Avoid introducing the quote by saying “Said Mr Smith:”. This is awkward English. Instead, say “Mr Smith said:”.

7. If there are several people being quoted in one story, construct the copy simply – do not ping-pong between one person, another and back again.

8. Cut out unnecessary waffle, without changing the meaning of the quote. If the speaker says: “In my honest opinion, and speaking from years of experience, I would say this is the worst planning bungle I have ever come across”, it is better to say: “This is the worst planning bungle I have ever come across.”

Cleland Thom runs journalism training services

Website: www.ctjts.com

E-mail: cleland.thom@tesco.net

Cleland Thom

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