Quotation Litmus Test

It’s a pity when surface problems scuttle otherwise strong scholarship. As an editor, I’ve noticed that poorly handled quotations are particularly damning. Inelegant use of prior scholarship can give the impression that a writer is unsophisticated, or even amateur.

Naturally, research does involve mining books and articles to inform our own arguments, which are ideally novel and substantial but still reference that prior work. So of course there’s a temptation to repurpose existing literature that seems to say exactly what needs to be said in order to get to ideas that are original. It can certainly be difficult to think around the particular ways in which influential scholars have formulated cornerstone concepts.

Because quoting prior scholarship is so integral to most academic disciplines, it pervades the research process. Material recorded verbatim in the information-gathering stage can find its way into manuscripts. Heck, drafting sometimes even starts with a skeleton of quotes germane to a topic; new writing is then added as connective tissue pulling it all together. Here’s what that method looks like:

“quotation” + enough original material to get to the next point + “another quotation”

And then there’s the quote-sandwich technique we all learned in college (or even high school):

short introduction + “quotation” + brief explanation
(quickly followed by another quote sandwich)

I’ve noticed that these “quote quilt” approaches are favored by graduate students and scholars writing their first manuscripts, which tend to grow out of their dissertations.

But despite its associations with student work, I wouldn’t say that stitching quotations together is a strictly verboten scholarly drafting method. I’ve used it myself. Using quotations to anchor an argument can be an expeditious way of putting research together.

The risk of leaving that structure intact through subsequent revisions, however, is ceding command of the material to the sources. Quotation after quotation will start to eat away at what editors call the authorial voice. Readers’ trust in the author as an expert will be squandered.

But when writers trust themselves, they can express the knowledge their fields accrete without heavy reliance on quotations. In doing so, they optimize both the integrity of the writing and the reader’s experience. In many respects, these two concerns are one and the same.

Justify Every Quotation

When editing, I tend to flag underwhelming quotations and instruct my clients to paraphrase them. But what I really should say—and have started saying—is that the writers have to be ready to justify every quotation that remains in their manuscripts.

That’s the litmus test. If an author can’t speak to why the material in question has to be replicated verbatim, my professional opinion is that it should be paraphrased instead. (Or, if paraphrasing feels like too much energy for too little return, the quotation should likely be removed entirely.)

How Do We Know Whether It’s a Justifiable Quotation?

I’ve come up with a handful of questions that scholars can ask themselves as they revise their drafts and scrutinize their use of sources:

  • Is the passage a statement of fact?
  • Is the excerpt from a secondary source but not exceedingly well phrased?
  • Do I just not feel like saying something myself?
  • Honestly, am I hoping that the source’s aura of credibility will rub off on my work?

My advice to you, dear reader, is to quote only when (a) you answered no to all the questions above and (b) one of the following conditions is satisfied:

  • The selection is from a primary source and is parsed in a critical (as in text-critical) way.
  • The snippet is from a secondary source and is so erudite, so jaw-droppingly well said, that you would be remiss to convey the idea in any other way.

It should go without saying that 99 percent of quotations need to be unpacked. (The remaining 1 percent are those inserted for punchy rhetorical effect, where explanation would take away from their impact.) Don’t let quotations transition for you, and don’t let them speak for you. Corral them; marshal them; deploy them in service of your argument.

I’m not saying that you should masticate other authors’ arguments and pass them off as your own. All I mean is that you should be putting other thinkers into conversation with one another in a way that’s entirely yours.

Why Do All This?

The advantages of using this method to justify the quotations that remain in your writing are several:

  • You, the author, remain in control of the argument.
  • In forcing yourself to justify salient passages from other literature, you improve your own grasp of the material.
  • The writing is tighter, with fewer tangents and better focus.
  • The work is more readable and has improved flow.
  • The manuscript is likely shorter.
  • Your readers will assume you are more senior in your field, since an overreliance on quoted material is a tic commonly (and often intuitively) associated with student writing.

Being rigorously discerning in your use of quotations benefits your readers, enhances your field, and boosts your professional standing. Any habit that can do all that and also make the work more fulfilling for the writer is worthwhile.

Happy paraphrasing!