How to Use Quotes
I love compliments of any sort, but I’m always a little thrown off when people compliment me on the quotes in my stories. In a way, I don’t feel I deserve credit for simply presenting what other people have said, but I’ve come to realize using quotes is a lot more involved than just being good at transcribing.
The first challenge, of course, is plucking the best bits out of a longer interview. If you’re like me, you spend loads of time with your subjects, and a good portion of that time is spent shooting the breeze, getting to know one another, commenting on irrelevant things like the weather or the time. That’s all valuable; it’s the necessary groundwork for getting to the more salient points. But none of that is likely to end up in your story as a quote.
Where you find the good quotes is in the meaty part of the conversation, after you’ve done all the throat-clearing and time-wasting and start to talk more about what matters. That might constitute a very small part of the time you’ve spent, but don’t despair. Most of us fill the air with a lot of chit-chat rather than substantive observations, so it’s just natural that you’ll have pages and pages of stuff that isn’t quotable. The ratio is always low. That’s the way people talk — especially a subject and an interviewer, who are already navigating a very unnatural sort of rapport and have to stumble their way to a real conversation.
I really don’t worry about that low yield of good bits, because I think quotes should be used like cracked red pepper flakes; that is, sparingly and to maximum effect. I think readers feel like I use a lot of quotes, but I really don’t. I just use them potently. For instance, I never deliver information in a quote that can be easily delivered in my own voice, unless the way the subject says it makes it special. If I ask a subject where she grew up and she says, “In a small town in Indiana,” I don’t think that’s an interesting quote. I’d rather write, in my own authorial voice, “Jane Doe grew up in a small town in Indiana.” That gives me more authority as the writer, the storyteller. On the other hand, if Jane Doe answered the question by saying, “I never really grew up. I was spewed out in a crummy hospital in a godforsaken town in Indiana, and left as soon as my feet could…