3 reasons to paraphrase more—and quote less

Being more selective about the verbal gems you share with your readers—and framing them just right—makes them sparkle with a special luminescence.

A recent issue of The New York Times magazine offers a compelling interview with Carl Hart, who is the first tenured African-American professor of sciences at Columbia University and a former drug user.

Hart is known for his research into drug abuse and addiction and is author of the 2013 book “High Price,” which sounds so interesting that I’m going to read it next week.

What could be more sensational than this? First, there’s the juxtaposition of drug abuse and a stellar university career. Then there’s the racial aspect. Then there’s Hart’s tendency to speak in firm, declarative, no-BS sentences.

For a writer, the really interesting challenge is to look at his interview and figure out which particular direct quotes I’d use if I were preparing a story on him.

Here’s why I find this so intriguing:

Many corporate writers (and some journalists, too, incidentally) quote way too much. 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.

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To quote less requires paraphrasing more. Why paraphrase? Three main reasons:

1. Many people in the business world don’t speak in articulate, interesting sentences or, worse, they lard their language with clichés or jargon. Some can toss off clever and salient comments like, “Nero fiddled, but [Calvin] Coolidge only snored.” (That’s a quote from H.L. Mencken—a journalist.) For every one of those, there are a dozen who will say, “Coolidge ran a laissez-faire government.” B-O-R-I-N-G. So, even while you’ll always want to cite sources, do them—and your readers—a favor by paraphrasing. This is particularly important if your sources use clichés or jargon. There’s no need to inflict those on your readers.

2. Paraphrasing allows you to summarize. Your interview with a subject might run as long as half an hour. Assuming this person speaks at 150 words per minute, you may collect 4,500 words. You can’t use them all. By summarizing—and paraphrasing—you’ll be able to share the most important and valuable information your readers need.

3. Paraphrasing allows you to highlight the best of the best. Do you know why jewelers like to display their goods on black velvet? It’s because the darkness of the fabric makes the jewels glitter brightly by comparison. Similarly, if you paraphrase the bulk of what your subjects tell you and quote only the most captivating phrases, you’ll be giving them a background of black velvet against which they can shine like diamonds.

Putting it into action

So, let’s return to that Carl Hart interview. I printed it out, took my yellow highlighter and marked the three quotes (four sentences) I’d use:

  • “The problem was that crack wasn’t the real problem.”
  • “As a politician, you can use “crack cocaine” as a code word and say you’re going after it, but you’re actually going after people we don’t really like in our society.”
  • “If politicians did care about their constituents, they would work harder to seek out people like me. They don’t.”

I selected these quotes because they seemed “real” to me and because they were tightly constructed and non-repetitious.

So how would I handle the rest of the (interesting) material? Here’s an example: The Nancy Reagan quote fascinated me but didn’t make the cut, because it was too choppy and I figured it would be better off paraphrased. Here’s how I’d handle it:

Hart says the “just-say-no” attitude of people like Nancy Reagan illustrates a kind of detached cluelessness that he finds abhorrent. “If politicians did care about their constituents, they would work harder to seek out people like me,” he says. “They don’t.”

Paraphrasing isn’t much work, especially if you’re a corporate writer and you can ask your source to review the story before it’s published. In many cases you can even use the quotes precisely—just remove the quotation marks to make it flow better and seem more readable.

Would you make the same choice I did in the Hart article? Please describe how you have would have handled it.

This article first appeared on Ragan.com in July 2014.

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