Story Behind the Story: A Quote Quota?

Currently, I'm reading Anthony Trollope's "Orley Farm." Or, at least I'm trying to read it. Don't get me wrong ...
by | September 15, 2009

Quotation-marks Currently, I'm reading Anthony Trollope's "Orley Farm." Or, at least I'm trying to read it.

Don't get me wrong -- it's a good story. It's just that I spend so much time reading newspapers, blogs and, yes, the occasional magazine, that I don't have much time for books.

Part of my problem is that when I do pick up "Orley Farm" I have to move backwards to reacquaint myself with the characters. Who was Lady Staveley? Is Felix Graham what-his-name's friend?

You'll never have trouble keeping track of characters in the articles I write for Governing. I wrote more than 1,200 words on health care for the September issue. The article quoted three people.

The month before that, I wrote more than 1,700 words on Jefferson County, Alabama's, financial problems. That article quoted four people.

As you may have noticed, that's typical for a lot of Governing articles. While there is no quote quota, Governing's editors tend to prefer articles that use direct quotes sparingly.

Part of the reason is that, even when you're reading something that's a hundredth of the length of a Victorian novel, it's hard to keep track of characters. Often, when I read a long newspaper or magazine article, I'll encounter, "says Williams," and wonder, "Wait, who was Williams?"

Usually, though, if a writer is studious he can help you keep track of the characters with little reminders ("says Williams, the Walla Walla warden"). As I understand it, there are two bigger reasons to steer clear of too many quotes.

One is that at some point they detract from the authority with which you write. I must confess that I found this rationale counterintuitive when I started at Governing. Quotes prove to readers that you've spoken with authority figures. How will anyone trust me, I wondered, if I don't show my work?

The value of a good article, however, is that the author has synthesized the viewpoints of a lot of different people into a coherent narrative. If I attribute everything to Williams, it begins to look like I can't say anything for myself. If I've spoken with Williams, Smith, Jones, Garcia and Singh, I should be able to say some things authoritatively, without attributing them to one particular person.

The rationale that's most compelling to me, though, is that most quotes are pretty boring. In an interview, sources answer my questions off the top of their heads. Often, what they say is interesting, but that doesn't mean they said it in a particularly interesting way. Sometimes, they'll happen upon a clever turn of phrase or elucidating analogy that fits perfectly into the story, but often not.

The advantage I have writing an article is that I don't have to tell the story off the top of my head. I get to sit in front of my computer for hours thinking about it. Since I'm supposed to be a professional writer, hopefully in most cases I can tell the story more clearly, concisely and captivatingly than my source did. My goal isn't to tell you exactly what they said, but, instead, what they meant.

Story Behind the Story is a behind-the-scenes look at what goes on at Governing. It appears every Tuesday.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman | Former Staff Writer |