To Quote or Not to Quote

I was going through old files on the weekend and ran across an article titled “Writing Advice From Nonfiction Writers” that appeared at There was conflicting advice on the usage of quotes.

An author named Hank Nuwer was a strong proponent of paraphrasing. To Nuwer’s dismay, I’m going to quote him.

“Most writers feel too much allegiance to the words of sources, using direct quotes when they should be rephrasing those words in a clearly written context,” Nuwer said. “Instead of using rambling quotations, good writers take the same information and create magic with the addition of background, irony, description and any of a hundred other devices.”

Historian and bestselling author Stephen Ambrose had a decidedly liberal view on quoted material. Just to be a contrarion, I will paraphrase Mr. Ambrose.

He said the best advice he received was from his mentor Dr. T. Harry Williams. Williams told Ambrose to let characters speak for themselves. Williams believed characters could almost always say it better than the writer. Ambrose took the advice to heart, quoting liberally in all his books.

As I drafted my book last year, I quoted liberally. But as I worked on a rewritten and edited second and third drafts, I cut much of the quoted material. Some things I paraphrased;  other parts ended up on the proverbial “cutting room floor.”

Two editors steered me in the less-quoted-material-is-more direction.  With all due respect to the late Mr. Ambrose, I’m happy with the approach.


3 thoughts on “To Quote or Not to Quote”

  1. Neil,

    I’m on your team.

    It could be argued that the very purpose of reading is to extract meaning from the writer’s words – no mean feat in some cases. Broadly quoting an author simply passes that difficult task on to the next reader. Some might call that “laziness.”

    Effective paraphrasing involves not only clear extraction, but expansion and amplification. Now that’s what I call delivering value.

  2. Of course, our personal writing should be quoted verbatim, since it is always impeccably clear, and absolutely the last word on any topic. (Visualize a Smiley face here.)

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