Famous quotes are famous for a reason. Well, a couple of reasons. First, they are attributed to famous people. But that’s hardly enough. Popular quotes capture an idea we can relate to in a short, often poetic sentence. They trigger an emotion, ignite our imagination, or tap into something deeper we recognize and understand. This makes popular quotes not only engaging but also memorable. They have what it takes to stick.
Most famous quotes are generic in the sense that they aren’t associated with a specific context. They are phrased as universal truths, making them easy to apply to practically any domain. On the flip side, using general-purpose quotes might be perceived as lacking originality, and for a good reason. Popular universal quotes are heavily used, and soon become a cliché.
But not all quotes are clichés. There are plenty of quotes that capture an idea in a specific context or domain. For obvious reasons, they are often less famous and less used. In that sense, they are the opposite of the universal quotes that seem to be relevant to any situation in any context. But for our purposes, that’s their greatest strength.
Suppose we can take such a domain-specific quote, generalize the idea it captures, and apply it to the domain we are writing about. In that case, we might be able to bring a fresh, vivid perspective to the concept we are trying to articulate. By using a quote from a completely different domain, we create a generative metaphor — an analogy that brings our idea to life and adds more color, and often depth, to it.
A generative metaphor based on a quote can be thought-provoking. It triggers both us and our audience to think about the similarities between the two ideas, as well as the differences between them.
So, here are three simple steps to take a quote and use it to create original, thought-provoking content:
Step 1: Find a Compelling Domain-Specific Quote
It may sound strange to start by looking for a quote before you have a concrete idea you wish to express, but that’s part of the fun: We want the quote to spark the idea.
Look for a quote from a specific domain. Avoid universal quotes which have already turned into clichés. There are numerous web resources with an infinite collection of quotes in practically any field you can think of. Pick one domain, even if you don’t see how it relates to the domain you are writing about.
For example, this newsletter is about communication and content creation, but I decided to look for quotes about cooking. I’ve picked this domain because many people can relate to it and recognize it. Finding a good quote could make my ideas about content writing more vivid and even trigger memories and emotions.
Here’s a quote that captured my attention:
“Taste as you go. When you taste the food throughout the cooking process, you can make adjustments as you go.” — Anne Burrell
It’s not the most poetic quote, but it works. People can connect to it — they can understand it, and it resonates with their experience. But what does it have to do with writing? That’s what I have to figure out in the next step.
Step 2: Make the Connection
Not every good quote can trigger an idea in the context we are writing about. But when it does, it’s super powerful.
When I read Anne Burrell’s quote, I immediately thought of the act of editing. I never publish a text without reading it first and refining it as needed. And that’s exactly like tasting the dish you prepare before serving it.
I hadn’t thought about editing as tasting before I came across this quote. This idea, which originates from a completely different domain, triggered a connection to my own domain. It helped me create a vivid metaphor: Editing the content you write is like tasting the food you cook.
Note that I still haven’t utilized this connection: I still haven’t addressed the idea of when to taste (or read) the food (or text) you create. At this stage, I’ve just established a connection between these two allegedly unrelated domains.
Step 3: Apply the Quote
Once we find a connection between the two domains, we can use the quote as a metaphor. Of course, we can’t just apply it automatically; we need to consider the similarities and differences between the idea captured in the quote and our domain.
When the editing process comes last, only after the entire text is written, it might be costly and harder to do. The longer the text is, the harder it is to edit it, let alone make some difficult editing decisions, in retrospect. Thus, just like cooking a dish, tasting throughout the process — reading and refining the text as it is being formed — will be easier and yield better results.
I managed to take the analogy between tasting a dish and editing a piece of text and say something more concrete and far less trivial about my domain. I’ve done so using the idea Anne Burrell had captured, which had nothing to do originally with writing, of course.
In the same way, I can leverage the differences between the ideas. For example, in cooking, it is impossible to take an ingredient out once it is added to the dish. When you taste your dish, you can only add ingredients. In content editing, on the other hand, you can certainly remove words, sentences, and ideas from your text. In fact, this is an essential part of any editing activity. Highlighting this difference is no less powerful than using the similarities.
Quotes are not merely esthetic decorations. Effective quotes, which haven’t turned into clichés yet, can spark new ideas and enrich your writing. A good quote is thought-provoking. It can stay present in the minds of your audience and help them understand and connect better to your ideas.
Needless to say, I’ve added a post titled “Taste as You Go” to my backlog 😉