How to Avoid Sounding Ridiculous When Using Quotes

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by Julie Schwietert May 19, 2009
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EARLIER THIS WEEK, I was reading an article about an imported goods shop in New York City.

The author seemed to want to give the reader the sensory experience of being in the shop—a tiny space with lots of character, stacked from floor to rafters with barrels of olives, tins of tuna, and ropes of locally cured chorizo.

At the same time, the writer wanted to put a face on the family-owned business, and here’s where she got into trouble:

“‘Whatever you do, don’t miss the chorizo,’” Angelica beams. “‘The heart of our business is our chorizo.’”

Here’s the problem: Angelica doesn’t beam. Really, she doesn’t. The verb the writer was looking for was simple: “says.”

So often, writers worry that they’ve use “said” or “says” too much and they go looking for a substitute word. The author clearly wants to convey emotion here, but beams doesn’t seem believable. It’s just not a word we use in daily speech.

There were some other lines that showed how much the writer was struggling to find the right words:

“‘In the first years we sold 2,000 pounds of chorizo per week. Now it’s 12,000 to 15,000 pounds,’ Marcos says, smiling wistfully as he remembers his former partner, who passed away in 2001.”

Smiling wistfully?

On another note, while it’s nice to remember the former partner, neither his life nor his death drive the purpose of this piece at all and the detail is better left unmentioned. It’s an irrelevant aside because there’s nothing else about the partner in the article.

“‘When our eyes begin to water, we know the fresh onions are being chopped for the morcilla,’ ” laughs Angelica, proudly explaining why the sausages are so good.”

Angelica isn’t laughing out this information proudly. Again, the author’s trying too hard here. Show, don’t tell. And keep it simple to avoid stilted language.

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