Updated: Jan 10
When you’re writing a nonfiction work – whether it’s a blog post or an article, the chapter of an anthology, or a whole entire book – it’s rarely a bad idea to use a quote or two.
Quotes from outside sources are a great way to bulk up our word count, for one thing. Most professional writers have expectations of how many words we put down on paper.
Sometimes it’s a boss who tells us how long a piece should be. Sometimes it’s ourselves. And sometimes it’s that blasted internet overlord known as search engine optimization, or SEO.
He’s always telling us that nobody will find what we wrote unless we bend to his will.
Alas, it’s not an empty threat by far. He really won’t allow us to show up in searches unless we do exactly what he says, word count and all.
But words can take too long to come up with. Constructing sentences that make sense and read well requires so many seconds… that add up to minutes… that add up to hours.
So using someone else’s seconds, minutes and hours instead is a welcome option.
It can even be a point-proving option when we use it well.
It’s one thing to make a statement as the author. But is it a fact or just an opinion?
Including quotes from elsewhere helps back up what we’re saying, especially if we’re not well-recognized experts.
For example, I could be writing a piece about how creative writing encourages critical thinking. I can even give examples of how this is true. (Because, for the record, it is.)
However, if I really wanted to solidify that concept in readers’ minds, I could pull something relevant from Robert J. Sternberg. He’s a respected professor of human development at Cornell University.
He postulates on his website, www.robertjsternberg.com, that true intelligence isn’t just one aspect of our lives. It’s actually a combination of components coming together to assess our strengths and weaknesses, and achieve worthwhile outcomes:
Strengths and weaknesses are in terms of four kinds of skills: creative, analytical, practical, and wisdom-based. In particular, the individual needs to be creative in order to generate novel and useful ideas; analytical to ascertain that the ideas he/she has (and that others have) are good ones; practical in order to apply those ideas and convince others of their value; and wise in order to ensure that implementation of the ideas will help ensure a common good through the mediation of positive ethical principles.
I can then conclude, as I did in a presentation last year that, “while the creative part can obviously be fueled through plenty of means such as musical or artistic expressions, writing stories will work just as well to enhance intelligence, depending on the person.”
For better or worse, it’s amazing how much more convincing we can sound when we back up our thoughts with expert opinions.
With all that said, while you’re quoting people, make sure to present those quotes in the best possible manner. For you and your argument’s sake.
Specifically, I’m referring to a fascinating nonfiction book I recently read that was well worth my time and money. I can’t say I agreed with everything the author wrote, but I appreciated that she made me ponder as much as she did.
She was a good writer too, overall engaging and relatable. I only have one major criticism of her writing skills, and that would be her presentation of quoted material.
There are two ways to represent other people’s direct words in writing. One of them is to set them completely apart as a block quote, as with the intelligence example given above. The other is to simply include their thoughts as parts of regular paragraphs.
Consider this example… “I have spoken with children who thought that,” Dr. Alexander says, “by sharing their concerns with peers, they’re opening themselves up to ridicule.”
In and of itself, breaking up someone else’s words to name who that someone is isn’t a bad thing. Just be careful to break them up correctly.
In the example above, the “Dr. Alexander says” would read much more naturally after “I have spoken with children,” not after “who thought.”
That way, the actual point he’s making isn’t broken up unnecessarily. It makes more sense and flows better. It's easier to digest.
Which, incidentally, should be your goal in writing regardless of whose words you’re using.