Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Quotes -- writing tip

Question from the e-mail: I quoted someone in an article and was careful to make certain it was an exact quote of exactly what she said. NOW she comes back complaining that I "made her sound stupid." How do I deal with that??

Answer: Well quotes can be funny things. Accuracy IS the most important thing, so be careful not to say someone is for an issue, if they SAID they were against it, whatever you may believe the truth to be.

However not everyone is articulate. I have, many times, when an interview subject has spent half an hour trying to explain something, had to put words in their mouths by saying, "So what you really mean is...." and stating the obvious simply and succinctly. They repeat it back to me, and THEN it becomes a quote.

Remember, quotes enliven the prose and produce a closer reader involvement. When quotes are used, the reader feels as if the subject of the article who is speaking directly to them. The only tricky thing about quotes is they have to be absolutely accurate. You shouldn't have any problem with that, though I've had past students (and fellow reporters) who did.

Two things about using quotes. As I said it's important to be accurate in quoting your subject. A tape recorder can be helpful, but you should probably take written notes as well when you do your interviews. It can be difficult to find the right part of the tape, especially if they talk a long time, and you could have to listen to a couple of hours of material to find the right few words.

If you take written notes during the interview, you can star or underline important paryts, and you will have them at the end and can double-check the quotes for "accuracy," to make sure the person you interviewed understands and is willing to be quoted. This works only if you are interviewing willing subjects.

Also, if the person you interview speaks poor or accented English, or in dialect, or uses profanity or slang, it's permissible to "clean up" their prose, so they sound intelligent and articulate in the article, as long as you don't change their meaning or the basic content of what they have said!

That doesn't mean you should make everybody sound like a lawyer, but if you're quoting the chief of police and he says, "Me and the boys was going over to Kelly's drinking beer after work, when we gets this call about a 10:51 PI." You can say, "I was at Kelly's with the boys after work, when we heard the call about a personal injury accident."

Your reader will understand, including the ones who frequent Kelly's Bar, and most of your interviewees will thank you for it -- if they notice the difference at all.

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