July 27, 2009 / Whitt and Wisdom

Got quotes? Place them with care

Written by Anne G. Whitt, MJE

Even outstanding quotations should not be out standing alone. Quotations are like grout: we cannot leave them out. Grout fills the crevices to make the wall or floor complete, but it is no substitute for tile. Quotes can fill in gaps in a story, but they cannot be substituted for a story.

In one recent week I saw two yearbooks that had traded the concept of stories in the book for only quotations. Yes, simply quotations. No stories. Since then I have seen three other books trying this technique. Opening copy is a series of quotations. Sidebars hold series of quotations. Rails are random quotations. One book even placed four quotations in 10-point type in a square around a fifth quotation, text wrapped in 18-point type. The setup looked just like a story placed around a pulled quotation, but it read like five single quotations.

Regardless of where we place random quotations or how creatively we decorate them, their role is only to enhance stories, not replace them. Quotations are inherently subjective. In journalism, objectivity rules. Subjectivity follows.

Even random answers to a specific question such as, “What do you plan for your future?” hold little value for a history book. Answers offer no clue about what happened this year. Such answers will be at best projection, at worst conjecture. Such a device would work as alternative copy, which should be considered a condiment, not staple.

Remember, this year is an important slice from each student’s life. Every teen year opens new opportunities. Attached to these opportunities are greater demands for effort and stressful doses of responsibility. Every student has to decide how he will react or interact to his new position. His experience is material for story. Everyone’s story has a thread of community with the rest of the school. At the same time the story will be fresh because it was new to this student and he had to meet the conflict in his own unique way. The yearbook staff must ask, listen and record these events pivotal to peers’ lives.

Trading stories for quotations puts the history factor and the interest angle on starvation diets.

In one of those books that has only quotations, one student’s quotation says, ”When homecoming was postponed for a week, I had a party at my house.”

That was it. That one sentence hints of two untold stories. Nowhere in the book could I find a story about why homecoming was postponed a week. We all know homecoming does not get moved except for something totally major. It probably was the most impacting event of the year, but it only earned half a sentence in the book because the staff decided to drop the story.

A random quotation or five of them do not tell a story. Neither does narrating the scoreboard or reciting the team stats. These are facts. They can be put in boxes on the side. A story is an account of a real event in someone’s life. It has a beginning, middle and end. It has setting and context. As we tell one person’s story, we weave events of the year with other people.

At a summer workshop when I mentioned real stories about real individuals, a girl objected. She said, “We have so many students, we could not cover them all in specific stories.”

Her editor answered, “If we covered a few, it would be more than we cover now. We aren’t telling anyone’s story.”

If the book has 400 pages and half of those pages contain from one to five real stories, the book might have 800 real stories. I commend a book when I find five.

Last summer another editor came to workshop saying, “My staff and I have decided to drop copy from the sports section for next year because sports stories are alike year after year and team after team.” Such a solution compares to random quotations. It also fails to tell the story of this year at this school. She left workshop excited to have learned that real stories about real people will be as fresh and exciting as the people featured.

This whole problem may stem from a misunderstanding of the role of the yearbook staff. The staff should think of itself as a corps of journalists embedded on this campus to record the story of this year at this school. No other entity in the entire world has this assignment. This fact means that if this staff does not record this information, unique in all time, the information will be lost forever. Professional media will record at best only a few stories relating to this school this year. Even these stories will lack intimacy compared to stories embedded students write about their peers.

Student journalists use the medium of story, generally written in feature mode, to record for posterity this year at this school.

The yearbook staff must find the story of this year at this school and present it with accuracy and interest. We just cannot tell the story without stories. The story of this year at this school is a compendium of the real stories of struggles, losses, achievements and events the specific students at this school encountered.

Quotations, especially well-placed, direct ones, add color, character, honesty and understanding to a story. They do not substitute for story.

Whatever else we may say about quotations, we must keep in mind that they are not complete entities in themselves. They are free radicals seeking context.

We might say quotations are like black pepper. It adds zest to the potatoes, but we do not want a tablespoon full of pepper alone.

Or, like grout.

Quotations are of great value. We must place them carefully in context.

Anne G. Whitt, MJE

Anne Whitt, MJE, is a retired yearbook adviser who taught at Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, Fla., and at the community college level. She was named a JEA Distinguished Adviser in 2000, and the yearbook earned state and national honors throughout the decades that she taught.