Thinking of starting your paper with a quote? Be careful!

It is a wonderful feeling to start a piece with a quote that means something to you. You can connect to someone famous who has said something much more clearly than you might. From there you can move on to your ideas. But there is unfortunately a big trap in starting with quotes. It is that so many people choose the same ones.

What is wrong with choosing the same quote as other people, you might ask. It is that they are not fresh. The reader does not read them and think about the topic. The reader reads it and thinks, oh, not this again, or thinks about where she last saw that particular quote. The point is, the quote does not do what you want it to do.

This is a particular problem for younger writers, because things that are new to them are not new to the rest of us. So if you like to use quotes, how do you find fresh ones? There is only one way. That is from reading original texts and choosing quotes you have not ever already seen quoted. Those texts should be original literature of any kind, and probably over 20 years old.


My best quotes come from my parents and their love of literature.

What is a for sure example of a poor quote source? It is anything you have heard quoted already, anything you have in your mind, anything you have read as a quote in someone else’s work. So just read and keep lists  of possible quotes. I like quotes, but not ones I’ve seen before. Surprise me.

Here are a few quotes that illustrate what I would avoid.

Darwin’s famous one on social insects: “…special difficulty, which at first appeared to me insuperable, and actually fatal to my whole theory. I allude to the neuters or sterile females in insect-communities.”

Darwin’s tangled bank quote with which he ended the Origin.

Dobzhansky’s Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.

And there are others you should avoid. So put a good book of poetry or a classic in your field and find you own fresh quotes. Keep a list and we’ll marvel at how erudite you are.



About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Communication, Writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.