Quotes are the Voices in a Story

Reporters often talk amongst themselves about what makes a great quote in a story. For readers, a good quote is a voice that resonates with the topic at hand.  A great quote can make you hear the music of the human voice, even though you’re reading. Without good quotes you can have an article, but you don’t have a real story–just some dry facts strung together.

My favorite quotes are the ones that have emotion, life, and personality. I hate nothing more than doing an interview and only getting quotes that read like a press release. If I wanted to quote a press release, there are a million of them out there.

Think about your spouse coming home from work to describe a dramatic day at the office, but without quoting any of the participants in the incident. The story would lack context and relevance. You would struggle to connect to it. And let’s face it–every story that is worth telling has drama of some kind. That’s why they are told.

When you’re putting an article together, you usually have several quotes to choose from in your notes. Hopefully you have them written down so you can quickly browse through and see what sticks out. That’s part one of getting good quotes: doing good interviews. Remember when you’re interviewing to listen for what sound like good quotes and get those down, even at the expense of other things the person is saying. If you don’t understand something, ask the interviewee to backtrack and repeat whatever they just said that was so great. Nine times out of ten, the repeated quote will be verbatim the same, or better.

Once you’ve done your research and interviews and are ready to write your story and are browsing your quotes, mark the ones you think work best. You’ll have  a different perspective on things than when you did the interview(s). If there is an important point you missed, call the person to clarify. (Always get phone numbers, not just email).

I always write my first draft of my article without quotes. That first draft is my perspective on the story according to what I have heard, read, and witnessed related to the story. Then I go back through the article and start putting quotes in where I want to punctuate and emphasize the story’s main theme. My second draft is always the story according to the people I interviewed. Then I go through one more time and filter out all the repetition, confusing stray concepts, and hyperbole. The third draft is like looking at the story through a pair of binoculars: one lens is what I see, the other is what the voices in the story see. It’s never the entire story, but it should always be a clear view of a certain angle.

The worst mistake you can make with a basic news or feature story is to introduce your first quote too late in the article. I think people need to hear a voice other than the reporter’s early on, or they might stop reading. If it’s an important story, it’s a shame to risk losing your reader to boredom.

For example, this article: http://www.theepochtimes.com/n2/china/wife-seeks-release-of-husband-and-lawyer-in-china-54591.html is about an extremely important topic of persecuted Falun Gong practitioners. But the reporters don’t let the main character speak until the fifth paragraph. Personally, I am straining to hear that voice from the first sentence because it’s such a compelling story.

Sometimes reporters have to deal with constraints and they can’t pepper their story with quotes. Sometimes it’s a matter of choice or style. There are stories which can even call for a quote as the first sentence. These cases have to be incredibly compelling and necessary, though. Beginning a story with a quote is generally not recommended.

This story about a man in Tanzania who got a cow from an Epoch Times reader is charming and full of lively quotes that bring the main character to life: http://www.theepochtimes.com/n2/life/a-tanzanian-elder-who-was-given-a-cow-by-an-epoch-times-reader-shares-his-good-fortune-54614.html.

You can almost hear him, can’t you? That’s the power of using quotes well: you bring the story and the people in it directly to the reader.


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