Our editors share when to use (and avoid) pull quotes

Readers can be drawn to many things, the narrative of course, but also interesting imagery, informative graphics, and cool design.

You know that. And, it goes without saying that headlines, subheads, and bullet points are primary hooks to reel in a reader. Each should be baited with care.

But what about the pull quote? Pull quotes too often end up a sad afterthought or simply a convenient space filler. Or they scream dull and get in the way of good storytelling.

But here is the thing: A pull quote, used properly and judiciously, can add humanity to a story, powerfully illuminate a point, and, yes, even jazz up design, especially when other elements are lacking.

Our editors, without pulling punches, offer a best-practices look at pull quotes. Let’s start with a few questions.

Ask yourself this: 

  • Does the quote provoke an emotion?
  • Spark my curiosity?
  • Tug at the heart?
  • Surprise me?
  • Make the audience want to know more?
  • Reveal the character or personality (or dialect) of the speaker?
  • Reflect an interesting layer of the story being told?

In some ways, pull quotes act as mini-headlines for the story. They offer another way to hook the reader/audience. Remember, this first question is the most important:

Does the pull quote pull me in?

We asked our editorial team of smarties to share when pull quotes work and when to avoid them.

Editor Mike Teegarden

Mike Teegarden

Mike Teegarden, CCC

Successful pull quotes are short and snappy. A great pull quote surprises the reader and makes them want to read more. But limit pull quotes to one every couple of pages. You don’t want to overdo them or give away the whole story.

Editor Noble Sprayberry

Noble Sprayberry

Noble Sprayberry

When you think about all the information bombarding readers, the goal becomes more than simply writing a great story, capturing compelling images with photography, and wrapping that all up in a strong package. You’ve got to grab the reader’s imagination.

One element of an attention-getting page is often a pull quote, which I consider a design element, right along with headlines, graphics, and other visual cues used to enliven pages.

That doesn’t mean you should use a pull quote just to have one. First, you need a great quote, a bright little nugget strong enough to stand on its own. That’s the most important part. A pull quote should make complete sense by itself. A pull quote should be a complete thought, something a reader can absorb without the context of the rest of the story.

Not every story will have that perfect quote. But when one is available, it can add spice to a layout and further engage a reader.

Senior Editor Pam Blair

Pam Blair

Pam Blair, CCC

Rarely is a quote so engaging that it is worthy of the spotlight. I would rather play a good photo large than waste space on a so-so quote. With that in mind, a great pull quote is something phrased in a dynamic, powerful, unique, or shocking way that genuinely captures the attention of the reader. Don’t use a quote just because you need to fill space. It needs to rise to a level of greatness to bother.

Assistant Editor Lisa Savage

Lisa Savage

Lisa Savage

While a strong quote can add to a story, too many quotes can detract from the flow. Quotes should add that extra punch that draws readers in and makes them take notice. However, when choosing a pull quote, make sure it’s not the same “kicker” quote used at the end of the story. Be selective in choosing a pull quote and where it’s displayed on the page. A pull quote should add to the overall design and not create a sense of redundancy.

Assistant Editor Jennifer Paton

Jennifer Paton

Jennifer Paton, CCC

Strong pull quotes capture an original thought, a creative way of looking at things, or a “why-didn’t-I-think-of-that” comment. I rarely use them; I lean toward using big pictures rather than leaving space for repetitive text. In the past year, I’ve probably used a pull quote just two or three times. If I did have something worthy of a pull quote, I would stick to using one per two-page layout.

Assistant Editor Chasity Anderson

Chasity Anderson, CCC

When I use a pull quote, it’s because the passage is extraordinary: shocking, incredibly heartfelt, or succinctly wraps up the subject being addressed. I think of pull quotes as another visual aid to complement the story being told and will look to the option more when little or low-quality imagery is submitted.

I’ve never used more than one pull quote. To me, multiples would lessen the value/impact of the pull quote and muddy up the design, making it harder for the reader to know what to focus on. Finally, it’s important to balance the white space around the pull quote to bring the right amount of attention and visual interest.

Associate Editor David Herder

David Herder
David Herder

David Herder

A pull quote is some of the largest type on a page after the headline. The text is in your face, so it gives another chance to say “this is what you should take away from the story.” Great pull quotes help sum up what either the full piece, or a section of a piece, is trying to say. Because of this, good pull quotes are the ones that distill the story into its key points and give a clear, concise, and vivid description.

Pull quotes are increasingly important the longer a piece gets. In physical media, they say, “This interesting quote is still ahead, keep reading to learn more about what it is talking about.” Because of this, I fall into the school of thought that you should never place a pull quote in a place where they would have already encountered the quote in the body of the story before seeing the pull quote.

To get quotes, ask for details during interviews. Get people comfortable telling stories. Ask people if there is a specific moment that sticks out to them (often as an aha moment), or have them run through a specific day’s schedule, asking why they do each action. The detail people give helps color a story, and after getting details people can step back and summarize what they’ve said. These summaries are often pithy and clear, and make for great quotes.

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