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Jun 9 / King Kaufman

Start a story with a quote? Webster’s defines that as “please don’t”

My new favorite Twitter feed is OHnewsroom. I discovered it through an old tweet someone retweeted yesterday:

“You can start a story with a quote twice in your career. Once when you’re an intern, and again if the Pope ever says f—.”

I have long had a similar rule for myself, which I’ve passed along to any writer who cared to listen: You can start a story with a quote, a song lyric or a dictionary definition once per decade.

Total. Not one of each per decade. I don’t think I used my allotment in either the ’90s or the ’00s, but it doesn’t roll over.

The real lesson: Avoid clichés. Like the plague. Ha.

How many times have you read a story and it started with, say, “Webster’s defines [some word] as …”?

Probably a lot of times. When you’re writing and you can think to yourself, “I’ve seen this before,” it’s time to change how you’re writing.

  • Riddles

    I love this series. Rany’s “Similies are silver; metaphors are gold,” has been bouncing around in my head for weeks now. Keep up the good work.

  • Carl Stine

    Awesome. This blog is incredible. Thanks for the tip…

  • Barry Shiller

    I’ve done the “Websters defines…” only once.
    And this post made me cringe.

    Exactly what it needed to do. Thanks.

  • Tom

    Great tip. I’ve been telling this to college students in my writing class for more than 10 years.

  • Skip Maloney

    While it is, indeed, a good rule of thumb (pardon the cliche), it’s best not to Post-It on the wall in front of you like a mantra. It’ll inhibit your own creativity. The first story I ever wrote as a member of a bona fide newspaper staff began with a quote, and I must have spent at least an hour trying not to do it.
    The fact of the matter, though, and key to the story, was the fact that “They want to sewer a beach.” I was just fortunate enough to have been there, when the representative of the relevant legislative body said it, and recorded the quote that became the story’s lead.
    The editor tried to get around it, too, but eventually acknowledged its appropriateness under the circumstances and launched my newspaper career by allowing me to break the rule.

  • Karlo Sevilla

    My last article for this month will be about a punk MMA fighter and it’ll start with a quote, a line from the song of The Clash. (Or was it The Sex Pistols? Google, Google, Google.)

    Let’s see if it will be a worthy exception to the rule.

  • King Kaufman

    Skip, that’s a good story, and I think that’s the right way to go about it.

    Sometimes a cliche, or some other thing you “shouldn’t” do, really is the best approach. But the way I think of it is, that approach has to win an argument. There has to be a damn good reason to use the cliche, or the quote to start an article, or the song lyric, or whatever it is. Doing these things consciously, intentionally, is a very different thing than doing them without even thinking. You and your editor were right to try NOT to use that quote to start the piece, but the quote won the argument. It really must have been the best way to start.

    There’s a story, I think apocryphal, that Picasso mastered every style of painting first, then went about painting his own way, breaking the formal rules. That’s a very different thing than it would be if, say, I took up painting tomorrow, with no mastery of any style, and just started “breaking the rules.”