Cutting your copy? Slash the quotes

Everybody’s trying to write tighter these days. Start with paring wordy, repetitive quotes—even if it’s the CEO who is speaking.

Former journalists abound among communicators, and even those who haven’t toiled under a grumpy Lou Grant-type editor tend to mimic the techniques of reporters.

This can cause contradictory crosscurrents in our writing. We strive to write tersely, but we sometimes litter our prose with quotes.

If you’re looking for ways to prune that 950-word employee profile—other than hacking off the bottom half—start by paraphrasing the bulkier or more jargon-y quotes.

A professional writer can state most matters more succinctly than people speaking off the cuff. This especially holds true if your source is addicted to corporate gobbledygook. Paraphrasing frees you up to underscore key points with snappy sound bites.

(Is it time for an obligatory quote? I say yes!)

Consider the following quote, taken from the raw transcript of an interview I conducted on crisis response many years ago:

“We know the channels we want to use,” the source said, “whether it’s email, or whether it’s just posting on the internet, or something very, uh, that has to go, we think, on our PR side. And we work with them to make sure, whether it’s just going to be a news release or whether it’s just going to be posted on the internet on our site and, um, whether we’re going to go on the press.”

Paraphrasing for clarity

Paraphrase that quote and—voilá—you end up with this: Communicators at Company X know the channels they want to use, whether it’s email, the internet, a news release—or going directly to the press.

Please note: No criticism is implied toward the source. I sound far worse in interviews, and the source provided a vital perspective. Indeed, if you want to drive yourself crazy, record one of your phone conversations and listen later to transcribe your meandering, repetitive remarks, replete with “ums” and “uhs.”

I was inspired to rethink my reliance on quotes after reading a recent piece by Ragan Executive Editor and dread [Editor’s note: He means “venerable.”Word Czar Rob Reinalda about how to cut your writing in half. Among Reinalda’s recommendations for distilling turgid prose is this: “Condense a bloated passage, retaining the key point.”

“Bloated”—if you’ve ever transcribed audio, that word comes to mind. No human speaks with the snappiness of fiction dialogue, so paraphrasing can clarify. Besides, shorter attention spans these days are forcing us to tighten copy, and quotes are an ideal place to begin trimming.

Gem quotes

Several years ago, esteemed Ragan contributor Daphne Gray-Grant recommended quoting more selectively to add a diamond-like sparkle to the quotes we do use.

“Many corporate writers (and some journalists, too, incidentally) quote way too much,” she writes. “I learned this the hard way, as a result of my habit of copying other writers. I discovered that some writers quoted their sources rather more selectively and modestly than I did—and to greater effect. I immediately vowed to emulate their technique.”

Especially when quoting one’s senior executives, we tend to let the source babble on. But we’re doing them no favor if their blathering causes bored readers to click away.

One of the most skilled quote-ropers was the New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, whose magnificent nonfiction collection, “Up in the Old Hotel,” is worth reading decades after its individual essays were published.

True, he often contradicts my recommendations by allowing his characters to ramble at length. (These were the days when a talented New Yorker writer was afforded thousands of words to spin yarns about nudists, sea captains, Mohawk skyscraper workers, and other oddballs.)

Yet he is at his most delightful when he sets up that perfect gem of a quote with his own vivid storytelling. A 1940 piece titled “Lady Olga” is a profile of a bearded lady who remembers one circus where she worked as “that ten-[rail]car mess on the West Coast where I and my third husband had to knock the sideshow manager on the noggin with a tent stake to get my pay.”

Whether or not your subjects are as colorful as a bearded lady, you will still do a favor for them—and your readers—by trimming your quotes.


One Response to “Cutting your copy? Slash the quotes”

    Zoie Mestayer - writer/editor for Platform Magazine says:

    As a writer, I find this piece incredibly interesting. We often assume that a verbatim quote can only add to a story, but in many cases, they can interfere with the clarity and effectiveness of the piece. From now on, I will make sure that any quoted material is expressly needed and (hopefully) has a bit of sparkle! – Zoie Mestayer, writer/editor for Platform Magazine

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