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A tiny piece of emerald on a miner's fingertip

Quick tip: To find the gem, wash away the muck

One problem I often see in white papers is over-long quotes from sources.

Lengthy quotes can easily slow down your narrative and distract from the point you’re trying to make.

If you see a quote that runs two or three paragraphs long, you can be pretty sure the writer included too much.

Your goal as a writer is to sift through all your research and pluck out only the shiniest words to use as direct quotes.

Then condense and paraphrase the rest to keep the story moving. That’s not easy, but it pays off.

That reminds me of mining emeralds

Gemstone miners face much the same problem.

Depending on the operation, miners use everything from bamboo baskets to modern earth-moving equipment to gather gravel.

Then they run vast amounts of water over the muck. This washes away all the earth, leaves, and silt.

The remaining material is sifted and screened. And a human watches closely for any sparkly stones to pull out.

Those finds are exceedingly rare.

For example, one large emerald mine in Colombia goes through 60,000 pounds of material to find 1.3 pounds of rough emeralds.

Emeralds are rare. That’s what makes them valuable.

And it’s the same with your best quotes.

You may interview someone for a whole hour, and get a lot of valuable background… but only one or two quotable quotes.

Your job as a writer is to wash away the muck to reveal those shining nuggets.

Anything else is quoting too much.

closeup on emerald on miner's finger

Some examples from a recent white paper

For one white paper last year, I scanned through hundreds of pages of reports and interviewed 15 experts.

As you can imagine, that gave me perhaps half a million words of raw material.

And I had to condense all that down to a few thousands words.

Here are three nuggets I mined from that input.

“Innovation in the smartphone industry seems to have reached its peak.”

I took this short soundbite from a lengthy report on Europe’s largest telecom show.

“Collecting map data has always been hard.”

I drew this authoritative statement from a Zoom interview.

Then I used more quotes from this expert later, but this statement set the tone for the whole discussion.

“Competition, not a walled garden, leads to the best outcomes.”

I took this choice quote from a 200-page report on Apple’s iPhone business.

Notice how each of those is short and pithy, around 10 words each. You can go longer, of course, up to 20 or even 30 words from a snappy speaker.

Just keep washing away the muck of words until what remains is the prize gemstone you want.

P.S. ChatGPT is terrible at this

Whenever I’ve asked ChatGPT to review a transcript and find the most quotable quotes, it pulls out huge gobs of words and sails right past the sound bites.

So as of early 2024, I believe this is yet another editorial skill that people can still do better than AI.


For more useful tips like this, subscribe to my free newsletter, White Paper World

About Gordon Graham

Worked on 320+ white papers for clients from Silicon Valley to Switzerland, on everything from choosing enterprise software to designing virtual worlds for kids, for clients from tiny startups to 3M, Google, and Verizon. Wrote White Papers for Dummies which earned 60+ 5-star ratings on Amazon. Won 16 awards from the Society for Technical Communication. Named AWAI 2019 Copywriter of the Year.

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