How not to quote someone in an article

News and feature articles are an established staple of the comms professional’s repertoire. But you can always spot when they’ve been put together by an inexperienced writer. The biggest give away? Look at the way they handle quotes.

Here’s a real-life example of how not to do it, from a recent news article. (Surprisingly, it comes from the FT, which otherwise has a writing style that all business writers would do well to aspire to):

“We have been forced to leave the coalition. We joined the coalition to promote democracy and independence of the judiciary. Unfortunately the commitments made by the PPP were not honored,” Mr Sharif announced after a meeting of his party.

Can you see what’s wrong with this text?

It has a couple of mistakes that inexperienced writers make all the time with quotes – ones that I’ve spotted countless times in company newsletters.

1. Making the reader wait

We are given three sentences of direct speech before we’re told who spoke the words. This habit is both confusing and frustrating. Why should I bother continuing to read the quote if I don’t know from the outset that they’re worth my attention? Tell us up front whose words these are.

2. Using “announced”

More heinous still is that word “announced”. To announce means to make something known publicly, to make a formal declaration of a fact, intention or occurrence.

Now, there are three statements in this quote, and only one of them can be described as an announcement:

“We have been forced to leave the coalition.”

(And even this statement is perhaps too loaded to be described as an announcement – were they really forced? Or did they just feel forced?)

To describe the other two statements as announcements results in sentences that are, respectively, illogical and, again, loaded:

“We joined the coalition to promote democracy and independence of the judiciary.”

(What, so you’ve only just announced this? Well no wonder your intentions never came to anything!)

“Unfortunately the commitments made by the PPP were not honored.”

(In the slippery world of politics, surely this classes as an opinion rather than an announcement?)

A better word would have been the straightforward “said”. In fact, the better word is always the straightforward “said”.

More on this topic next week, when I’ll be discussing other commonly misused non-synonyms for “said” – and why you should avoid them.

2 Responses to “How not to quote someone in an article”

  1. Zoe says:

    The effective simplicity of “said” was drilled into me when a teacher once laughed at the loads of alternative words I had piled into a text. Too many alternative words is sticky in fiction, but it’s definitely a bigger no-no in journalism.

    I recently came across a good “How to Write” series posted online by The Guardian. Here is the journalism page: http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2008/sep/25/howtowrite

  2. clare says:

    Thanks for the Guardian link, Zoe. Useful stuff!

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