Writing on Writing: Quotation Disease
by Scott P. Stolley
A common disease in legal writing is overreliance on quotations. Lawyers love to quote from statutes, regulations, law reviews, treatises, dictionaries, and, most importantly, caselaw.
Lawyers think that the liberal use of quotations is persuasive because it shows off their scholarship. They think it demonstrates that their case is righteous because it shows that other smart people support them. More often than not, however, the fascination with quotations backfires.
Overuse of quotations (especially stringing quotations together) will reveal you to be a quotation assembler—a mere compiler of others’ work, not a writer. This gives your writing a cut-and-paste appearance, which is bad form for at least three reasons.
First, courts usually want to see your reasoning and your thought process — not someone else’s. They want to be confident in your ability as a legal analyst and writer. They are more likely to rule for you when you demonstrate this ability.
The second reason is related to the first. Overreliance on quotations exhibits a certain laziness. It also shows a level of insecurity in your abilities or your case or both. This can be deadly.
If you don’t care enough about your case to write in your own words, then why should the court care about your case? If you are insecure about your ability, why should the court be confident in your proposed result? If you are uncertain about your case, how much certainty will the court be able to muster on its own?
Third, when you write in your own words, your argument is more likely to be clear and forceful. You know your case the best, so state it in your words, not in the borrowed words that don’t necessarily fit.
The first cure for quotation disease is to quote sparingly. Minimize the number of quotations you use. Insert a quotation only if it sparkles in a way that your writing never will on that particular point. If the quotation doesn’t sparkle, then find a way to accurately paraphrase it.
When you do insert a quotation, make it as trim as possible. Excise the words that don’t help carry your message. Also, use quotations only as support, by stating the point in your own words, followed by a corroborating quotation.
Finally, there is one place where stringing together quotations is probably acceptable, namely, in your statement of the standard of review. Quoting these formulaic rules is probably more comforting to a court than a stilted paraphrase.
Block quotations are an especially deadly strain of quotations. First, they tend to interrupt the reader’s flow—a bad side effect when you want to move the reader in your direction.
Second, judges often don’t read block quotations. Notice that in doing your own reading, you will tend to skip block quotations. Why would judges be any more immune to this tendency?
Sometimes, though, only a block quotation will serve. This can happen most often when the construction of particular contract, statutory, or regulatory language is at issue. In those circumstances, the court will usually want to read the pertinent language first-hand and not as a paraphrase.
If you must use a block quotation, reserve their use for quotations that exceed four lines of text or 50 words. Anything shorter can stay as a textual quotation. Also, trim as much out of the block quote as you can. You might even be successful in trimming it below the length threshold so that it can stay in the text.
A final cure—indeed, a mandatory cure for block quotations—is to begin with a lead-in to the quotation. This consists of a statement that introduces the gist of the quotation. So, for example, if you are quoting a statute, your lead-in might read like this: “In the statute, the Legislature specified four requirements to obtain a license: [followed by a trim block quotation of the statute].”
Avoid formulaic and non-informative lead-ins, such as “The court held: . . . .” or “The statute reads in pertinent part: . . . .” Instead, give the court a roadmap for what the block quotation says. This makes it more likely that the court will read and understand the quotation.
Proper punctuation also makes quotations more readable. If the quotation is a complete sentence, precede it with a comma or a colon, and capitalize the first word. If it is not a complete sentence, omit any preceding punctuation and do not capitalize the first word.
Commas or periods go inside the final quotation mark, while colons and semi-colons go outside. Exclamation points and question marks go inside the final quotation mark only if they are part of the quoted material. Do not use quotation marks at the beginning or the end of a block quotation.
Because credibility is so important, be meticulous about using brackets and ellipses to show any changes you made to the quoted material. But if the brackets and ellipses proliferate to the point of being annoying, then ditch the quotation and paraphrase it instead.
Scott P. Stolley is the leader of the Appellate Practice Group at Thompson & Knight LLP. He is Board Certified in Civil Appellate Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. He can be reached at email@example.com.