Why “when asked” is the dumbest thing you can write and ways to avoid using it

(Are you the most important thing in the story? Probably not. So stop telling me you asked people stuff…)


One of the weaker writing trends that’s been popping up in a lot of writing lately has been the use of “when asked” as part of a lead-in to a quote, or in some cases, as part of a quote:

When asked if he supported the bill, the mayor said, “Not this stupid version.”

When asked about the how best to improve relations between the university and the town, the chancellor said, “We need to work together on this.”

When asked if New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo should resign amid allegations of sexual harassment, President Joe Biden had this to say.

Here’s What Alex Rodriguez Said When Asked If He Was Single Amid Jennifer Lopez Relationship Drama

This is dumb for about a dozen reasons, but here are a few that might matter to you as a journalist:

  1. It’s passive voice: “When asked” implies “by someone,” which means you’re introducing the quote from a weak grammatical position.
  2. It’s first person: “When asked by… ME! LOOK! I ASKED A QUESTION!” Are we that thirsty that we need to mention that we had the temerity to ask a guy at the fair how the corn dogs were this year?
  3. It’s a “No duh” moment: Of COURSE they said it when they were asked. Isn’t that how this normally works in life? Think about how weirded out you’d be if some random stranger just ran up to you and said, “Hey, I just wanted to tell you and all the readers of whatever story that you’ll be publishing that the corn dogs at this fair are FRICKIN’ AMAZING!” I don’t know about you, but I’d be backing away slowly or reaching for some pepper spray.

In the examples above, we have a few other problems as well:

  1. The setup incorporates lousy quoted material: In the first two versions, you get really bad quotes that don’t do a lot for the piece or for the reader. Neither of those quotes add value or quality in a complete quote kind of way. The chancellor quote is lame, while the mayor quote isn’t a full sentence. You can actually make these better through the use of either straight paraphrase or a partial quote:
    1. Mayor Jane Smith said she sees value in a voting-security bill but “not this stupid version,” which would require citizens to cite the pledge of allegiance backwards before casting a ballot.
    2. North Texarkansas State University and the city will continue to clash over parking restrictions unless the city council and the college can work together to resolve ticketing protocols, Chancellor Arlene Selridge said Tuesday.
  2. The set up tells me that you’re going to tell me something: In the latter two, you have actual examples of journalists telling us that they’re going to tell us something. In the Cuomo example, the build up to what the president had to say is the bulk of what’s going on in the sentence. It then leaves us with a “commercial cliffhanger” for that second paragraph. In the A-Rod/J-Lo one, we don’t even get the decency of a full chunk of information as to what that “drama” entails.

    Think about it like this: If your professor walked into the classroom and said, “I have graded your midterms.” Would that be the ONLY thing you’d want to know? Probably not. Then imagine the professor saying, “I have graded your midterms. When asked by my wife how well people did, here’s what I had to say!” Is it getting any better or are you thinking, “Can I use The Force to pull mine out of the pile or an X-power to read his mind and just get my damn grade?”

The reason that paraphrase-quote works well is because each chunk of that structure has a job: The paraphrase tells you something important that will get you deeper into the piece. The quote then provides flavor, color and “sparkle” to that topic of interest while not repeating what you already know.

“When asked” takes away the best parts of both of those elements.

At least, that’s what I’d say if I were asked…

One thought on “Why “when asked” is the dumbest thing you can write and ways to avoid using it

  1. maoffer13 says:

    Many times I prefer to know whether someone’s comment was spontaneous, or only stated in response to someone else’s pressing question. Is this something that’s so important to them that they really made an effort to communicate it, or something they had avoided broaching, and only spoke about when pressed?

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