Zitatsalat? What does that even mean?

Yes, Zitatsalat. I found this lovely but rarely used German term in the title of a book by the journalist Stephan Maus. The book’s name is Zitatsalat von Hinz & Kunz.1

I love the rhyming rhythm of this compound term, but what does Zitatsalat actually mean?

Well, Zitatsalat translates as Quote Salad. It’s not a compliment.

The cover of Stephan Maus's book, Zitatsalat

Zitatsalat, by Stephan Maus (2002).

But what’s wrong with quoting other writers?

What’s wrong with quoting other writers?

There’s a temptation for those writing by means of a Zettelkasten, or card index, to use too many quotes in their writing - to collect a whole garden of notes, then serve them all up on a large plate of mixed leaves. Perhaps this is because the Zettelkasten approach to making notes makes it almost too easy to dish up a pretty indigestible salad of citations.

The subtitle of Maus’s book is: ‘Handpicked from the Zettelkasten’, and it’s true, the Zettelkasten makes it easy to gather and rearrange the pithy quotations of other writers.

But that doesn’t mean you have to use them all in your own writing. It’s fine to collect interesting quotations and excerpts from books and videos and articles and podcasts. But on their own they don’t belong to you, and you can’t just string together a pile of quotes and call it an article. It’s important to reflect on your reading and make it your own. That means writing about what the wise words of others mean to you, because:

Nothing says “I didn’t think this through for myself” like a direct quote. writingslowly.com

A bowl of mixed salad

Sure, it’s a salad, but is it your salad?

Write memos about the quotes you collect

One way of treating the process of gathering quotes from your reading is to see it as being a bit like the grounded theory process of gathering and reflecting on interviews. In this process the researcher records an interview, using direct transcription, but also reflects on the interviewee’s words by means of writing memos.

You don’t just write down the words of others. As you progress, you also write your own reflections on what the others have said. Then, when it comes to writing a longer article or book, the memos serve as important raw material.

The Wikipedia entry on grounded theory says:

“Memoing is the process by which a researcher writes running notes bearing on each of the concepts being identified… Memos are field notes about the concepts and insights that emerge from the observations.”

But I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking it’s really not cool to quote, and especially not Wikipedia.

And you’re right.

A market display of Calabrian chili

Chili, Tropea, Calabria, Italy. Norbert Nagel / Wikimedia Commons. License: CC BY-SA 3.0.

Don’t plate up a meal that can’t be eaten

I’m as guilty as anyone of trying to pack in as many quotes as possible in my writing.

The APA Style Guidelines say it’s usually better to paraphrase rather than to quote directly2, but did I listen? No!

When I studied psychology I found it almost impossible to follow the very clear assignment instructions not to include any direct quotes at all.

Because I love quotes!

And, truth be told, I love quote salad, it’s delicious.

But even I have to admit it can get pretty indigestible really quickly.

Years ago, when we lived in the West of Scotland we enjoyed the Calabrian chili pasta served by our local Italian restaurant, and as we began making it at home, we grew accustomed to the tremendously hot chilies we were using. Then one evening we served our favourite dish to some unsuspecting visitors. Too late we realised our mistake. They were completely unused to this kind of heat. I remember watching in dismay as they sat quietly but in obvious distress, as though expecting smoke and flame to erupt from the top of their heads like a volcano. We were so apologetic, but it was too late.

Zitatsalat is a strong dish. So by all means, offer your guests some quotes.

Just not too many.

Very few, even.

So for now, here are as few quotes as I can manage:

  1. DuMont Buchverlag, Köln 2002. ↩︎

  2. see what I just did there? ↩︎