Thursday, February 6, 2020

Four Tips for Using Quotes

By Barbara Kramer

Quotes add punch to a manuscript and that helps to hold the readers’ attention. However, simply inserting a quote here or there does not make the writing interesting. It’s important to know when to use quotes and how to make them fit into the flow of the writing. Here are four tips for using quotes effectively.

Use quotes when the person you’re writing about says it better than you could in your own words. That was something I learned by chance when I was working on my first biography which was about Alice Walker. I wanted to describe the day in 1961 when Walker left her small town in Georgia to head off to college. She took a bus to Atlanta, where the college was located, and made the mistake of sitting too close to the front. A white woman complained to the driver who asked Alice to move to the back.

I worked and worked on that paragraph trying to find a way to show how Walker felt about that experience, but I only got frustrated. I finally realized it was impossible for me to describe how she felt. It was better to let her say it in her own powerful words: “But even as I moved, in confusion and anger and tears. I knew he had not seen the last of me,” Walker wrote in her book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.

Use quotes to show character. In The Great and Only Barnum, Candace Fleming used a quote from P.T. Barnum to show his aversion to farm work as a child. “I always disliked work,” he noted. “Head-work I was excessively fond of. I was always ready to concoct fun, or lay plans for money-making, but hand-work was decidedly not in my line.” It’s easy to see how Barnum’s gift for thinking up ideas for fun and profit as a kid may have led to his future as a great showman.

Use quotes to build or expand on an idea. An example is a quote from Who Is Oprah Winfrey? Oprah’s first job after college was as a news anchor in Baltimore, something she was not suited for at all. She was upset because she was failing so badly. Then, to make matters worse, the station managers decided she needed a makeover. “They sent her to a fancy hair salon in New York City,” I wrote. “The stylist did a special treatment on Oprah’s hair and left it on too long. It did so much damage that all her hair fell out.” That incident was sad and shocking but adding this quote from Oprah made it even more so. “I had two little spriggles, like a bald man,” she recalled.

Keep quotes short. Think of quotes as dialogue in a story. Readers lose focus if a character rambles on and on without interruptions. So it’s best to interrupt the dialogue with action or another character’s comments. It’s the same with nonfiction. A good way to keep quotes short is to weave in background information and then end with a short quote. It’s what I did with the paragraph about Alice Walker heading off to college. A long description of that day in Walker’s own words would have taken away from what I felt was a strong quote. So I provided the background about her sitting too close to the front of the bus and the white woman complaining to the driver. Then I ended with the emphasis on Walker’s own words.

Finding just the right quotes and weaving them into a manuscript is hard work, but it’s worth the effort. They can turn a dull manuscript into one that holds the readers’ attention.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Barbara Kramer loved reading biographies when she was young, especially those about trailblazers such as Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, and Elizabeth Blackwell. Now she enjoys writing them. She has written over 35 biographies for children and young adults. Her subjects include historical people such as Thomas Edison, Harriet Tubman, and Cleopatra, and people in the news such as Oprah Winfrey and Lin-Manuel Miranda.












ABOUT THE PRIZE

Barbara Kramer will be awarding a signed copy of Who Is Oprah Winfrey?


Leave one comment below about what struck you in the post.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered NF Fest participant and you have contributed one comment below.  
 

176 comments:

  1. These are great tips. Thanks, Barbara!
    Gail Hartman

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  2. Especially like the idea of using a quote when the person I'm writing about says it better!! Thanks, Barbara!

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  3. These helpful tips and illustrative examples will be my new guide to using quotes. Thank you so much, Barbara!

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  4. These are fabulous tips. Thanks so much Barbara.

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  5. Barabara, quotations are gold if you can find them! I have one WIP bio w/a biographee who has the best quotes and one WIP w/just a few. I tis import to know when or if to use them and why . Ty for this post.

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  6. Very helpful. Thank you for the concrete tips, Barbara. I've found quotes to be awkwardly placed or forced at times in books. (And I've avoided them!)

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  7. Excellent tips. Thanks for sharing!

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  8. As a journalist I couldn’t agree more with everything you’ve said. When writing news articles, putting quotes in at the right place keeps the reader’s interest and keeps the story flowing. Great tips!

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  9. Thanks for the tips I was just wondering about quotes the other day.

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  10. Quotes are fun! I'll have to look in some of the referenced books to see how you cite them... Thank you!

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  11. The right Quote is absolutely better for showing a person's feelings, thoughts, and general substance. Thanks for the tips.

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  12. Terrific information on using quotes effectively. Thanks for sharing those tips with us today.

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  13. The quotes seem to bring the character's own voice to life. Excellent tip.

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  14. Thank you Barbara for your great tips on when to add quotes, and how to weave them into our story.
    Much appreciated!

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  15. Perfect timing! I'm working on a MS now and keep finding "jems" of quotes that I might use. (Honestly, I'm considering only two, but they're all great!) I do have a question though. When the subject tells the same story to different sources (not a possibility to ask in person), but changes a date, a year, a small detail, can the writer creatively excerpt the quote, like stop mid sentence? Can you think of a pb example that you feel does this well?

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    1. Super question! So much to learn about finding accurate, reliable and useful quotes!

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    2. I often find variations of quotes because the subject has talked about the same event in different interviews. I usually include a note to the editor saying that there are different versions and then give the source for the one I used. Changing a date though is pretty serious, but with all the research we do, it would be possible to figure out what date is wrong and then I would avoid using that quote. However, you don't always need to include the whole quote. You can sometimes just use a sentence as a way to shorten the quote, but an editor told me once that the quotes should be whole sentences, rather than a few words from a sentence. I would need to do some research to come up with examples, but it's something to think about when you're reading mentor texts.

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  16. The quote about what happened to Oprah Winfrey's hair was horrifying! How horrible and yet, she outlasted that setback. Wow!

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  17. Quotes are fabulous when you can find them. Thanks for the tips!

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  18. I like to think that I have used quotes well, but this is an excellent reminder to me to keep checking to make sure that I really have. Thanks!

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  19. Great post, Barbara, with helpful examples. Thanks for the reminder to keep quotes short!

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  20. Thank you for your thoughtful post Barbara - I'm rethinking a manuscript as I write this!!

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  21. I often feel (mournfully) that the best writing in my MSs is not by me -- it's the quotes from my subjects. Thanks for the tips on when to use them.

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  22. It's easy to get caught up in writing too much to set a scene, when a simple quote will do the job as well or even better. It took me a long time to fully understand the concept of "show, don't tell."

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  23. This tip is worth quoting! :)
    "Use quotes when the person you’re writing about says it better than you could in your own words."

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  24. Kathleen Cornell-BermanFebruary 6, 2020 at 7:13 AM

    Thanks for your post Barbara! Using quotes can bring a manuscript alive. I used Miles Davis quotes in my Birth of the Cool book because Miles says it better than I ever could. The subjects' personality shines through quotes.

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  25. I agree - quotes add punch to a story! Thanks for the 4 tips. I'll be thinking about them as I continue to research my person and write a first draft.

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  26. I think I need to print and post your four tips. Wondering how this is done if the person lived in a time where their words were not "written" down. Curious.

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    1. Great question, Louann. I ran into that problem when I was writing about Cleopatra because she has no paper trail. So for that book, I used quotes from Plutarch, the Greek historian who wrote about her. Even if I have quotes from the subject, I sometimes use quotes from other people because it's fun to know what they thought of the subject.

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  27. Thank you for your advise on quoting.

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  28. Thanks for the thoughtful information on quoting. You broke it down so well!

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  29. Quotes can add so much. Thanks for the tips.

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  30. Perfect summary tip, Barbara, about using quotes. Thanks.

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  31. Love the quotes and examples. So when do you have to get permission to use a quote? Or does the publisher/editor take care of that?

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    1. I haven't had to get permission for any quotes I've used because I've drawn from interviews and the subject's writings. It's fine to use short quotes from sources like that, but for longer quotes, you would need permission. I've also heard that writers need permission to use lines from songs and poems. That's something I would discuss with the editor once the book has been accepted.

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  32. Great post, Barbara. I liked the tip about using quotes sparingly, as with dialogue. Thank you.

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  33. I often think of quotes as adding the subject's perspective at a key point in the story. So I love finding just the right quotes (if they exist) to do this. Your examples are fantastic. Thank you!

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  34. Thank you! Excellent post!

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  35. Thank you for the examples and the reminder that when we analyze picture books we should always consider the "why" behind the "what."

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  36. Terrific examples, Barb, quotes definitely add color and spark readers' interest!

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  37. I love reading quotes in a book. Thank you for your wonderful advice!

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  38. Great examples of how to use quotes successfully. I like the tip of using quotes to build on an idea.

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  39. "Think of quotes as dialogue in a story." Yes! Stories fall flat without dialogue. Finding just the right quote is such a gift.

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  40. Very helpful advice on using quotes effectively in our writing!

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  41. After just that short excerpt, I would love to read your biography of Oprah! Thanks for sharing great examples!

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  42. This is a great post! Thanks for your insight and examples!

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  43. Informative post, Barbara. Thanks for the teaching moment.

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  44. Thanks for the tip on keeping dialogue short!

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  45. Barbara describes mistakes I made with the use of quotes in my writing a biography. I'm embarrassed to share that I used long quotes and also added them when they weren't part of the appropriate scene.
    Melanie Vickers

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  46. Thank you for the tips on using quotes. That is something I will need to keep in mind when I write.

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  47. I love this tip. Who else to tell us how they actually felt?

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  48. Great tips - thank you for showing us such concrete examples. And "spriggles" - what a marvelous word - I can see Oprah saying it.

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    1. I know! I saw that word and knew I had to use the quote. It's just so Oprah!

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  49. I don't use a lot of quotes since my nf picture books are for ages 6-8, and I usually write about animals.

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  50. Great post, Barbara! Thank you for sharing your tips on when to add quotes, and how to make the character come alive for the reader through their own words.

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  51. I love a good quote. Thank you for sharing how to use them to engage the reader and to highlight the story.

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  52. Thank you! I love the ides of quotes as dialogue.
    Mary Warth

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  53. Great examples for showing how to effectively use quotes. Thank you! I especially like when saying it in their words has more impact than saying it in your own.

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  54. Great tips on using quotes. Thanks!

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  55. I just pulled out a bio that I had set aside and was trying to see if I could spiff it up with quotes. Your suggestions are so timely, Barbara.

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  56. Quotes do help keep a reader's attention--if placed just right in a manuscript. Thank you, Barbara, for sharing excellent information that I found timely for a current, WIP.

    Suzy Leopold

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  57. oh my gosh--poor Oprah!
    I love quotes and used many in my biography of Gloria Steinem. I have another I'm working on now in which I want to use almost exclusively quotes and rely heavily on art. But I'm not an artist, so not sure I'll pull it off.

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  58. Thanks, Barbara. Finding the right quote can make a manuscript soar. Great examples.

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  59. Good suggestion to keep quotes short! Sometimes I want to include *everything* a person said about an event or ideae.

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  60. Thank you, Barbara, for this informative post. I hadn't thought about using a quote as dialogue within the story. I've heard so many different explanations about the use of quotes.

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  61. Thanks for the good tips. I know I’m guilty of putting in quotes at places just because I felt they needed a quote. A lot to think about.

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  62. Thank you for your valuable insight into effectively using quotes, Barbara!

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  63. Great advice on quotes much appreciated.

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  64. Thanks for the great advice on how to thoughtfully use quotes to improve a manuscript. The tips are greatly appreciated and will be used.

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  65. I love the tip to use a short quote for emphasis, rather than a long quote that may lose reader interest. Thanks for the great examples!

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  66. Thank you for sharing your experience in the use of quotes. You've given us excellent examples to go by and have sparked ideas on how to use them. Priscilla

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  67. Thanks! I tend to overuse quotes, and run them long. This was great advice.

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  68. Thank you for these tips. When I was writing a lot for magazines, I always liked to start or end my article with a powerful quote if possible.

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  69. Eye opening to think about the reasons behind using a quote and how the reader will react to it.

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  70. Thank you, Barbara! It's so helpful to have these concrete examples of how best to incorporate quotes. They really do make a manuscript come alive, but even more so when used effectively in the ways you point out.

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  71. excellent guidance for those of us who write pb bios!

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  72. Thanks, Barbara! That’s such a great idea!

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  73. Thanks for all of the advice. I am in the middle of writing a bio and including quotes. Great timing.

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  74. My research found only a few quotes. I hope to use them well. Thank you for your advice.

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  75. Thank you for this wonderful advice on the use of effective and impactful quotes in nonfiction to enhance our writing.

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  76. Quotes can be so powerful. Thanks for sharing tips on how to use them.

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  77. Great quote by Walker. I used to read those aged biographies too, but I don't write them. Thanks for your words of wisdom.

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  78. I definitely need to add a quote to my bio of Marjory Stoneman Douglas. She was quite the character!Thanks for this helpful post.

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  79. Thank you. I don't think I've ever included a quote when writing a bio. Why not?!?!? I think I should try to insert one now and then. Thank you for this post.

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  80. Thanks so much for your concrete examples. They illuminate so well the effective use of quotes. I especially appreciate the advice to use quotes to show character.

    Celia Viramontes

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  81. This was so encouraging to me. It is much the same as the ways I used quotes as a journalist and that's comforting when so much of this feels new and challenging. Thank you!

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  82. Great, practical advice on using quotes and great to hear what Alice Walker said on the bus. Thank you!

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  83. Thank you for this. Best wishes to your mother for a good recovery...mine has been 8 months with more to go to be back to myself. Patience. Love your poem and the idea of writing them anywhere!

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  84. Thank for this informative post about quotes! :)

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  85. This is so timely! I am working on a NF bio and using quotes. My critique partner and I were just discussing how to weave them in! Great suggestions.

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  86. This is very helpful advice about using quotes. Thank you!

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  87. These tips are such a help! It will help me to focus when researching and writing, and avoid just sticking a quote here or there. Every example showed the real depth of the people written about. I'll be practicing the four ways to use quotes...to say it better, show some character, expand, and keep it simple and short. And, I'll be looking for those quotes with descriptive and fun words like "spriggles."

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  88. Greta tips here, to keep the authenticity in our NF bios. Love the Oprah quote!

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  89. I've read WIPs where a quote was plopped in a scene that was only slightly related to what was being shared. But oh how I love it when a writer uses a quote to offer that emotional grab of my attention. It adds that perfect flavoring. So tasty. Love this post. Thank you Barbara.

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  90. These daily posts have been so helpful. This quote resonates with me. "Use quotes when the person you’re writing about says it better than you could in your own words." One of my high school English teachers taught us something similar. If you can't find the words, use someone else's (giving them credit, of course). That really clicked for me and helped improve my writing. I even do that with fiction stories in a different way. I use the dictionary, thesaurus, vocabulary lists, mentor texts, etc. The words are out there. It's just finding the right ones and putting them together. Thanks for the great post.
    -Ashley Congdon

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  91. Timely! I used quotes in a PB Bio at the end of a few scenes because I felt they were a good fit but hadn't thought of why. Thanks for posting about quotes.

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  92. The very first thing you mentioned about quotes Barbara is great advice! If the quote says it better than you can... use it. Thank you!

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  93. I, too, appreciated the advice of using a quote when you believe the quote says it better. Thank you so much for this post!

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  94. Thanks Barbara for the examples and excellent advice on using quotes in our NF. It was very helpful!

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  95. Thanks for those helpful suggestions on how to use quotes, Barbara!

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  96. I love the idea of using quotes to show a person's character. I love how what people say and how they say it adds a quirkiness and personality to them that you wouldn't get purely from describing them.

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  97. What a thoughtful post that quickly summarizes a much larger process of decision-making! Finding the "right" quote and placing it in the "right" place has been a struggle for me, especially if there are a lot of quotes that could be used. I have to narrow down and get rid of the ones that don't "add" more for the reader (that are just interesting to me). Thank you!

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  98. Well placed, short quotes share so much with the reader. As a writer, thus far my quotes are all animal sounds. :)

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  99. Thank you for sharing your insights on the best times, and reasons, to use quotations.

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  100. Great post.
    Thanks
    Becky Hall

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  101. Excellent advice! And that helps to keep it true too, if those specific words are quoted directly from the subject.

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  102. Great suggestions...thank you, Barb!

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  103. Thanks for all of these tips on how to use quotes. I love the way Debbie Levy uses quotes in I Dissent. -Sara Ackerman

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  104. I appreciate this clarity on using quotes...great advice, Barbara. Thanks.

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  105. Thank you! I always struggle with this. You post is super helpful.

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  106. Reading this made me realize I don't have a single quote in my nonfiction WIP. I interviewed the subject, so I have her words written down. I guess I just paraphrased everything instead of using direct quotes. This gives me very specific revision goals. Thank you!

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  107. Quotes are such a great way to add voice, your subject's voice, to a piece. I could hear Oprah saying those words in my head when I read the quote. And that's what we want, for our readers to hear the people we right about and feel like they know them.

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  108. Barbara, I love your succinct but pointed advice about using quotes, especially about keeping quotes short. So helpful!

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  109. It is such a great thrill to find a perfect, succinct quote. These make great punch lines after you set up the situation as Barbara did with the Oprah book.

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  110. I love the idea of using quotes to enhance what you are writing. Thanks for sharing, Barbara.

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  111. Your wise use of quotes makes it seem like the subject of your book is speaking from the page. Thank you, Barbara.

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  112. Solid advice! These are tips I learned in journalism school.

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  113. Thank you for the advice. Great reminders to always have in my head.

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  114. I'm about to rethink my quotes in my biographies!

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  115. Great tips. I'll be looking for quotes that capture the subject's emotional response.

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  116. What a way to add the personal touch to your story - expanding the universe of your story into your subjects' mind and heart. Thank you for pointing out 4 ways to effectively use quotes!

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  117. Barbara this tip grabbed me "Use quotes when the person you’re writing about says it better than you could..." Thank you for the great tips.

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  118. these are great notes Barbara. No matter how exciting and detailed the prose, well-chosen quotes bring the subject to life right there on the page.

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  119. Great tips about using quotes--thank you! And, I didn't know that about Oprah--yikes, how terrible for her!!

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  120. Thanks, Barbara. I love how clearly you presented this.

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  121. Thanks so much for these helpful tips, Barbara! So nicely presented and easy to remember!

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  122. Such great helpful tips! Thanks Barb! You know your craft!

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  123. Such a great topic. I especially appreciate the tips on how to use quotes for maximum impact.

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  124. Thank you for the thoughtful article. Quotes from my subject, and from other people about him,h really livened up my biography!

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  125. Thanks the great advice.

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  126. I love the first tip. Thanks for this helpful post!

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  127. Love using quotes in my creative nonfiction manuscripts. Thanks for delineating when it's best to use them.

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  128. Quotes really do make a story come alive.

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  129. These are wonderful examples. Thank you. -Karen Brueggeman :)

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  130. Wonderful examples. I will review my quotes in my WIP. Thanks, Barbara.

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  131. I will look at quotes in picture book biographies differently now and see what aspect they helped portray. Thank you for this.
    -Rebecca Blankinship

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  132. Great examples - especially memorable as I love Alice Walker and some of the others you mentioned. Glad to read the need to break up - as in dialogue. Very helpful.

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  133. Using quotes to show character has to be one of the top ways to add heart and insight into my manuscripts, and I often forget how important that is. Great insights here!

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  134. I will be paying more attention to the quotes I read!

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  135. Helpful tips, Barbara. Thank you! Be Inspired, Nicki Jacobsmeyer

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  136. Thanks for your insight on how to use Quotes effectively. Maria Johnson

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  137. Someone else mentioned about when you need to write for permission to use quotes, which is a great question. Whenever we can present a subject's view in his or her own words, it is golden.

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  138. Thanks for these great tips on weaving quotes into the story.

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  139. I especially liked your example for how to use quotes to show character. Helpful reminders of the importance of including a person's actual words, including that individual in your telling of their story.

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  140. Keeping quotes short is so important! Thank you

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  141. Very useful information. Thank you for posting.

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  142. Thanks for the great guidance on using quotes! I love using quotes in my science writing for adults.

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  143. Great specific tips on using quotes!

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  144. Great advice is priceless! Thank you!

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  145. Excellent tips. I especially like how you worded the first tip. "Use quotes when the person you’re writing about says it better than you could in your own words". When I read it, I thought you explained that tip better/with fewer words than I could, and then I had to laugh.

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  146. Strategic use of quotes is like adding a spot of red to a painting. :)

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  147. I appreciate this advice on how to use quotes strategically. And I really like the replies to comments Barbara has made above! This is all helpful information.

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  148. Barb, you always have such helpful advice. I copied this down and I'll refer back to it as I'm working on my PB bio. Thanks! Great post.

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  149. Such useful information, Barb! The section about using a short quote to make it stand out is especially helpful for me. Less is more!

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  150. Good tips, thank you! I love your idea of building the scene, then dropping a zinger!

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  151. I've been trying to find the right quote to use my PB bio, but while my subject was a prolific writer, she tended to use complex sentences and lots of words that would be unfamiliar to kids. This affirms my decision not to include a quote just for the sake of including a quote.

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  152. Love this idea and look forward to checking out the books you mentioned so I can use them as mentor texts. Thanks.

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  153. Thank you for the great tips. Love the examples you used.

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  154. Thank you for your post. Great examples! I love the emphasis on keeping quotes short.

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