"A Quotation Is a Handy Thing"

milne quotation quote Last week, some friends and I ended up in conversation about blogging and writing. Like me, many of them have benefited from the opportunities of the tech age and have dug up long-buried passions in order to blog, write e-books, and contribute to online journals. But with these opportunities have come a whole slew of questions about how to write well.

Unfortunately, much of the broader conversation has trended toward answering questions about platform development and navigating the publishing industry. I say “unfortunately” because most of the Christian bloggers I know are not pursuing an elusive book contract or trying to be the next internet sensation. Most are like the majority of local church pastors I know. They want to serve people through their gifting. They want to communicate the hope of the gospel. They want to do good work.

So in order to help expand the conversation beyond platform building, I want to develop a recurring series that addresses questions that faith-based bloggers/writers often encounter. This series is not aimed at professional writers but to those of us typing away at our kitchen table, on an (unmade) bed, or at our lunchtime breaks. If you find yourself in that group, feel free to leave suggested topics and questions in the comment section below.

To get us started, here’s a question Megan Hill posed to a group of us this week:

Q: What principles/criteria do you use when deciding whether to quote another writer in your articles? Frequently, I find myself wanting to quote a valuable and truthful word from someone whose theology, life, or perspective I couldn't wholeheartedly "amen." Quoting them with a lengthy and often distracting caveat--"while I don't agree with this writer on everything blah blah blah"--doesn't seem completely satisfactory, but maybe it's the way of wisdom. What do you do?

A. The church tradition that I grew up in had a strong commitment to separating from false teaching and worldliness. One way this worked itself out was that pastors, teachers, and writers rarely quoted other pastors, teachers, and writers outside our tradition. If they did, it was with massive caveats. Even the books in our church library (and then later in college) had a sticker pasted on the flyleaf to remind us that the content of said volume may or may not be in keeping with the views and values of our church. This background makes me sensitive to the question of who and what to quote in my own writing. On one hand, a quote is influential because it presents the author as a sort of “expert witness.”  But, then again, maybe we were over-thinking it. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  1.  Recognize that no one is perfect. Don’t lull yourself into thinking that some writers are “safe” while others are not. This is a particular challenge for those us operating online—a world that is often driven by tribes and celebrity status. It’s just too easy to give certain authors a pass at the same time that we over-scrutinize those outside our own camp.
  2.  Consider whether the author of the quote is using the ideas and words in the same way that you are. For example, if I quote a Jehovah’s Witness speaking about Jesus as the Messiah, I’m pretty much guaranteed that she and I aren’t talking about the same thing. Closer to home, even orthodox Christians can have different understandings of the nature of faith, grace, and the kingdom. Make sure you mean the same thing.
  3.  Ask yourself why you are using a quote in the first place. There are many reasons writers use quotations, sometimes simply as a way to associate their own writing with the success of the author of the quote. But a common reason we use quotations is because we haven’t actually worked through the ideas ourselves yet. Like A. A. Milne said, “[A] quotation is a handy thing to have about, saving one the trouble of thinking for oneself, always a laborious business." (See what I did there?)
  4. When in doubt, quote a dead guy. More than likely, the truth that you “discovered” from a modern writer isn’t original with that writer. Those of us who are honest know that writing is primarily an exercise in borrowing ideas and repacking them for a specific audience. By quoting those who are long dead, you can side-step any current controversies that may distract from your core message.
  5.  Give honor to whom honor is due. If a certain author did open up a concept for you, perhaps in a way that no one else did, it would be wrong to not attribute it. Don’t let your fear of how others perceive him or her drive your choice of whether to quote or not. (Rabbit Trail: Don’t EVER write from fear.)
  6.  If you use a caveat, don’t let it undermine the flow of the text or the significance of the truth that you are trying to communicate. When the caveat overshadows your main point, it becomes the main point. And all the benefit gained from the actual quotation is lost. Instead, write with grace; briefly acknowledge the point of disagreement but devote the majority of your time and words to affirming the shared perspective.
  7.  Finally, remember that all truth is God’s truth. If a writer is communicating truth, it doesn’t belong to him; it belongs to God. And nothing he can do can make that truth any less true. In fact, the truth of God is so powerful that not even the father of lies himself can corrupt it.

Writing is often a perplexing activity. The hows and whos and whys are not always easily answered; at the same time, I believe that many of the challenges can be resolved by simply thinking more, working harder, and praying longer. In the end, regardless of who or what you choose to quote, don't take the easy way out.