How to Use (And Not Abuse) Direct and Indirect Quotes, Part One

This is Part One in a two-part series on using direct and indirect quotes. Check back soon for Part Two!

By Tiffany Fox

Quotations (also known in journalism as direct quotes and indirect quotes) help to humanize science and often add much-needed emotional contrast. They provide a sense for the “characters” in our stories – what drives them, how they speak and how they relate to the world. Many times – especially when a source is particularly charismatic or cantankerous – the use of quotes can mean the difference between a stuffy, boring technical piece and a story that vibrates with life. But it’s important to know how to use quotes effectively, and for that, we offer these tips:

  • First and foremost, caution must prevail. Quotes can be the most contentious aspect of a story. If your source feels you did not quote him/her accurately, s/he will often complain (irksome), will sometimes ask for a printed correction or retraction (embarrassing), and will almost certainly be wary about serving as your source again in the future (a death knell if the source is important for your beat).
  • Precision is of the utmost importance when using direct quotes (i.e. using quotation marks to signify exactly what has been said, word-for-word). Any quote you use must be verbatim.* If you think you might have misheard, either ask the source to confirm what they said, paraphrase what they said (aka quote indirectly) or leave the bit out of your piece entirely.
  • Recording your interviews serves as “insurance” for your use of quotes, but you must get consent to record in advance, and surreptitious recording is illegal in many states, including California. This consent can be either written or – even better – recorded prior to the beginning of the interview. Experienced writers are adept at copying down quotes verbatim without the use of a tape recorder, but if the topic is at all controversial, a recording is still the way to go (plus it makes it possible to repurpose the interview as a radio broadcast or podcast!)
  • In most cases – unless a source is particularly quotable – you will use quotes rather sparingly, lest the reader wonder if you have anything to add to the story yourself. On the flip side, a story with very few quotes might make the reader suspect no sources were actually interviewed. In general, you will want to quote at least two sources for any science news story. Feature stories about one particular researcher can quote that researcher at length and need not quote anyone else.
  • Please, whatever you do, do not waste your valuable quote real estate on mundane detail, eg. “I am 58 years old and I am a microbiologist,” she said. Just paraphrase the dull stuff, and save the direct quotes for the more evocative bits. For example: Bartlett, a 58-year-old microbiologist, describes tardigrades as “a miscroscopic cross between a teddy bear and Jabba the Hutt.”
  • It can be a bold choice to begin a story with a direct quote if you’ve got a particularly enticing one, but it can be difficult to do without context. Ending a story with a quote can also be very powerful, but you run the risk of saving your best stuff for the end, when you might have lost the reader. Use your discretion.
  • Avoid a long wind-up to a quote, particularly when the quote doesn’t add much. Example: When asked how he felt about the new particle physics laboratory, which would cost $22 million and take 10 years to construct, Dr. Mayberry said he was “pleased.” (Talk about anti-climactic!)
  • In most cases, it’s best to just use said when quoting someone, given the purpose of said is merely to help the reader keep track of who is talking. If a quote continues to a second paragraph, using she added or he continued is also appropriate. When you start using observed or noted it can sound vaguely like you are editorializing (Example: “My colleagues around the country have changed their tune about my research,” Prof. Humperdink observed.) Sometimes it is appropriate to use words such as according to, alleged, contended, contested, etc. to signify something is open to dispute. But for the most part, just use said. And for heaven’s sake, don’t start distracting the reader with nonsense like he chortled or she opined.

** A note about verbatim quotes: It’s acceptable and common to remove excessive use of filler words, i.e. “um, ah, uh, you know” to avoid bogging down the story. However, sometimes strategically leaving those words in can convey a sense of uncertainty, which might be important. Also be careful about including poor grammar or dialect if it makes the source sound unintelligent. If it’s relevant to the story to mention the source speaks with a lovely Castilian lisp, go ahead. But please don’t go so far as to quote the source as saying, “Thee thells thea thells down by the theashore.”

Check back soon for more tips and techniques, or add your own in the comments!

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