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To Quote or Not to Quote in Non-Fiction

 There was a time when writers of non-fiction, myself among them, believed that it was necessary to sprinkle a lot of quotes throughout a manuscript in order to give the book or magazine article a touch of accuracy and credibility.

Quotes, I was told, increased my professionalism and status as an expert.

Quotes, I was told, let my readers know that I was on the scene and writing from personal knowledge. Nothing I had to say had come out of a book or a twice told tale.

Lee Walburn, editor extraordinaire

Quotes, I was told, will become the cornerstone of your story, particularly the travel stories I was writing for Southern Living Magazine.

Andrea Di Salvo, in her article, Using Quotes to Give a Creative Twist to Your Writing, said, “Every writer has a voice, a certain tone to his or her writing. While this is a good thing, switching it up a bit creates engagement and helps keep the content fresh. It helps break up the monotony of a possibly long drawn-out monotone piece, which in turn will help keep the reader reading. A good rule of thumb is to place a relevant quote every few paragraphs.”

It increased the story’s credibility, she said.

It added white space, she said.

Made sense, I thought.

However, the best advice I ever received came from Lee Walburn, the celebrated editor of Atlanta Weekly Magazine and later Atlanta Magazine. He knew what made good writing. More importantly, Lee Walburn knew what made good reading.

Jimmy Driftwood

I had written an article for him on Jimmy Driftwood, the Ozark Mountain singer and songwriter. And I had quoted Jimmy frequently. To me, I could look back one day and say, “See, I’ve been to Timbo, Arkansas. I knew Jimmy Driftwood. I quoted him. He said those wonderful words to me.”

In the article, I had quoted Jimmy Driftwood about writing one of his classic songs.  He said, “I wanted my students to learn, but they couldn’t remember history. So I wrote down the lessons and set them to music at night. The kids came to school with their musical instruments and, by learning the songs, they learned history. One of the lessons I taught was The Battle of New Orleans.”

“It’s a nice quote,” Lee Walburn said.

“Thanks.”

“I don’t want it,” he said. “The quote ruins the rhythm of your writing. Take the whole scenario and write it like your were writing the passage for a novel.”

So I handled it this way:

“Driftwood spent a lot of sleepless nights, worrying about the students in his classroom. They had grown up playing almost any musical instrument with strings, but none had any inclination to learning history. Dates bored them. Places they had never heard of or been to did not interest them, and few, if any, had ever been outside the hollows around their own homesteads.

“Why study battles that had already been fought when there were quite a few back in the mountains they would rather fight themselves, usually winding up in the middle of deer poaching, cow stealing, pig rustling, or a family feud or two.

“So Jimmy would go home at night and take out his century-old guitar, the one handmade by his grandfather in the Smoky Mountains, the one fashioned from an ox yoke, a fence post, and the headboard of his grandmother’s bed. And he would write songs and put those history lessons to music.

“The students brought their stringed instruments to school each morning, sang a batch of historical songs in class, and they learned all about dates, places, and battles whether they intended to or not. One of the lessons was a light-hearted, toe-tapping little song Jimmy called The Battle of New Orleans. In Nashville, it would sell more than eight million copies.”

I handed the article back to Walburn. He nodded. “That’s what I want,” he said. “I don’t ever want to see a bunch of quotes again. A few are fine. But tell the story. Stopping a story for quotes is like digging a pothole in the middle of a smooth highway.”

I never forgot. His words, his admonition, forever changed the way I write.

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  • http://twitter.com/jackdrsm Jack Durish

    Funny you should mention it… When I wrote about Castro, Che, and Hemingway in my novel Rebels on the Mountain, I used quotes from their writings as dialog to put words in their mouths. Although it is a work of fiction, I wanted to make it as historically accurate as possible. This technique seemed to me to help that process.

  • Caleb Pirtle

    Jack: That’s why your fiction has such a touch of authenticity. It’s better to let a character say what he needs to say than for us to simply say that he said it.