Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

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Four Tips for Using Quotes

Quotes add punch to biographies for children 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 4 tips for using quotes effectively.

  1. 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 very 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 more and more 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.

  1. 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.

  1. Use quotes to build or expand on an idea.

In an article about how U.S. presidents kept fit while they were in office, I wrote this paragraph about Truman. “Harry S. Truman was famous for his early morning walks. Reporters and photographers sometimes tagged along, but keeping up with him was not easy. Truman kept a brisk and exact pace.” That provided the basic information, but I decided to show how brisk and how exact by ending with this quote from Truman’s memoirs: “I walk two miles most every morning at a hundred and twenty-eight steps a minute,” he noted. The quote also showed a bit about his character.

  1. Keep quotes short.

Think of quotes as dialogue in a story. Readers lose focus if a character rambles on too long. 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 Walker’s 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.

Quoting Thomas Edison

Thomas EdisonThomas Edison, my biography for early readers, was released by National Geographic this month. The book is part of a series and one thing I like about the format for the series is that there are many short sidebars throughout the book. It meant I was able to include tidbits about Edison that I found interesting, and hopefully, my young readers will agree.

Those extras include quotes from Edison in sections called “In His Own Words.” I thought finding quotes would be the easy part of my research, but it didn’t turn out that way. I quickly discovered that many quotes from Edison have been corrupted over time.

How does that happen? Sometimes it’s because someone tries to simplify a long quote. Other times, educators feel it’s important to correct a famous person’s grammar. I guess they don’t want kids to associate bad grammar with greatness. Or sometimes, it’s just human error. We make mistakes in copying something and don’t always catch them when we go back to check.

Quotable_Edison_The-copy-219x300[1]For whatever reason, I had several versions of some quotes and no idea of which ones were right. Fortunately, I found a book called The Quotable Edison (University Press of Florida, 2011) by Michele Wehrwein Albion. In the 1990s, Michele was curator at the Edison & Ford Winter Estates in Ft. Myers, Florida. In that position, she saw first-hand how often Edison was misquoted. That led her to undertake the huge job of tracking down the original sources of the quotes.

Michele combed through the Thomas Edison Papers. With help from librarians and archivists, she also hunted down magazines and newspapers of Edison’s time to find the original copies of interviews with him. It was a lot of legwork, but the result is a carefully footnoted book of quotes. It was a great resource for my book. It is also a fascinating read with quotes that provide interesting insights into Edison’s personality.

Edison often talked about the value of hard work. “Genius is all bosh. Clean hard work is what does the business,” he once said.

In an 1891 interview with a reporter from the New York Journal, he noted, “What counts in the world is the man who produces, not the man who talks. I found out a long time ago that if you talked about a thing it wasn’t remembered, but if you produced it was remembered.”

He had no plans to rest. In reply to a question about when he would retire he said, “A few days before the funeral.”

Although Edison was serious about work, he also had a sense of humor. He enjoyed playing practical jokes often at the expense of the press. An example was the time he talked about “inventing shirts made of thin sheets of gelatin that could be worn for a day, then peeled off and discarded.” He later joked that people had already sent him checks for the shirts.

In a diary entry dated July 12, 1885 he offered a remedy for freckles. “I think freckles on the skin are due to some salt of Iron, sunlight brings them out by reducing them from high to low state of oxidation. Perhaps with a powerful magnet applied for some time and then with the proper chemicals, these mudholes of beauty might be removed.”

As Edison became more famous, reporters wanted to know what he thought about almost everything. Edison seemed more than happy to give his opinion. As a result, The Quotable Edison is rich with his thoughts about politics, presidents, inventors and inventions, and even the possibility of communicating with other planets.

Edison was harsh in his comments about competitors such as Alexander Graham Bell. “The telephone was no invention,” he said. “It was a discovery. Don’t you know how the telephone was found? One day Bell was fooling with some wires and diaphragms in his laboratory, and suddenly he heard the voice of an assistant over the wire from another room. The telephone was all there; the rest was simple. No, the telephone was no real invention; it was an accident…. Bell never planned to invent the telephone.”

Edison was a practical man and had little interest in inventions he did not think were useful. “Locomotives are pretty well developed,” he said, “but you wouldn’t want to buy one and have it in your house, would you? Television is like that.”

I was most surprised by Edison’s concerns about the environment. Quotes like this one are still relevant a hundred years later. “Sunshine is a form of energy, and the winds and the tides are manifestations of energy. Do we use them? Oh, no; we burn up wood and coal, as renters burn up the front fence for fuel. We live like squatters, not as if we owned the property.”

As for communicating with other planets, Edison with tongue firmly planted in cheek said, “I think we had better stick to this world and find out something about it before we call up our neighbors. They might make us ashamed of ourselves.”

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