By Barbara Kramer
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?
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