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Home > Publications > Quill > Watch what they say


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Tuesday, November 4, 2008
Watch what they say

Paula LaRocque

We’re writing a business story and have interviewed several CEOs. We comb our notebooks for clear, punchy quotations to buttress our narrative, and our best quote sounds something like this:

1) “Firstly, it is my opinion that to develop win-win procedures, attitudes and synergy, we have a strong need to strategize proactively — and that means rewarding and incentivizing all our staff so they will respond quickly and effectively at the employee level to directly address our challenges and problems in the immediate future.”

Or we’re covering a city council meeting, and we get this response to a question:

2) “The board has conducted an investigation into the charge that was made by one of our board members that certain supervisors had been on a regular basis misappropriating departmental funds for their private use.”

Or we collect this statement from a school superintendent:

3) “We’re trying very, very hard to improve our students’ basic language skills, which are admittedly very low. It has been very challenging indeed, but we are very pleased to report some very small improvement after months of very intense effort.”

What are we going to do with these quotations? Shovel them into the story as is? Some reporters do, with this reasoning: “You can’t change quotations” or “Well, that’s what they said.”

That’s an abdication of responsibility, which is to write accurate, clear, brief and readable stories and reports.

News writers often say they live or die by the quote. And if such reverence extends to the overlong, muddy, dull, incomprehensible utterance, half that equation is correct: They will die by the quote.

Fact is, overlong, muddy, dull, incomprehensible quotations yield overlong, muddy, dull, incomprehensible stories. How could it be otherwise? The readers aren’t going to say: “Whew, rough going. But it’s OK! It’s a quote!” No. They’ll say: “Whew, rough going. The heck with this!”

What’s the answer? The paraphrase. It’s true that we mustn’t change direct quotations, but we can remove the marks that make them direct, and reword them for clarity, brevity and grace.

Let’s look at the three quotations above. Taken together, they embody the bulk of what makes quotations unreadable: length, structure and phrasing. More specifically: wordiness, gobbledygook, pretensions, pomposity, poor grammar, passive voice and over-use of prepositions and vague qualifiers. It should come as no surprise that these common problems in speech are also common problems in writing.

Take quotation No. 1. Its flaws:

Wordiness: have a strong need (need); directly address our challenges and problems (address problems); in the immediate future (soon).

Pretentiousness and pomposity: firstly; it is my opinion that.

Corporate gobbledygook: win-win; synergy; strategize; proactive; incentivize.

Grammar: A “staff” is an “it,” not a “they.”

In short, the quotation is so flawed that it does not meet the standards of professional communication. Paraphrased, however, it can be clear, crisp and meaningful: The CEO said a staff incentive program would encourage more effective problem-solving at the employee level.

Look at quotation No. 2:

Wordiness: conducted an investigation into (investigated); charge that was made by one of our board members (charge, or member charge); on a regular basis (regularly, or omit if clear); misappropriated departmental funds for their private use (misused departmental funds).

Excessive prepositions: Most sentences can bear at the most three prepositional phrases, but this 33-word passage has five (into, by, of, on, for).

Passive voice: The charge that was made by.

If we paraphrase, however — prune wordiness and cut passives and prepositions — we create a clear and meaningful statement: The board said it had investigated the charge that certain supervisors had misused departmental funds.

Quotation No. 3 suffers from only one flaw, but it’s a common and damaging flaw: the vague qualifier. The offender here is “very,” but other vague qualifiers (extremely, totally, completely, wholly, entirely, utterly, really, quite, rather, somewhat, slightly, fairly, etc.) are equally unwelcome in precise writing. The paraphrase, without that say-nothing stinker “very”: The superintendent said improving the students’ admittedly low language skills had been challenging, but that he was pleased to report some improvement after months of intense effort.

It makes sense to police the quotations in our stories as carefully as we police our own narratives. And where the quotations don’t meet the standards of accuracy, clarity, brevity and interest, we should paraphrase. The skillful paraphrase will retain the speaker’s immediacy and message but lose the blather.

So take off those quotation marks. The reader won’t miss them.

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