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!

How Science Writers Help Scientists to Think More Deeply

hand raised

I recently came across a compelling passage (below) from computer scientist Luis von Ahn, the founder of Duolingo and CAPTCHA, among other things. What struck me was how accurately his words reflect what we as science writers do each time we say, “I don’t understand. Can you explain that to me?” As von Ahn notes, asking for an explanation can have the effect of helping scientists (and others) to think more deeply about what they do, and how what they do might fit into a larger context.

And that, when it comes down to it, is how science (and humanity) progress.

Here’s what von Ahn has to say:

“My PhD advisor [at Carnegie Mellon was] a guy named Manuel Blum, who many people consider the father of cryptography [encryption, etc.]. He’s amazing and he’s very funny. I learned a lot from him. When I met him, which was like 15 years ago, I guess he was in his 60s, but he always acted way older than he actually was. He just acted as if he forgot everything. . . .

“I had to explain to him what I was working on, which at the time was CAPTCHA, these distorted characters that you have to type all over the Internet. It’s very annoying. That was the thing I was working on [later acquired by Google], and I had to explain it to him. It was very funny, because usually I would start explaining something, and in the first sentence he would say, ‘I don’t understand what you’re saying,’ and then I would try to find another way of saying it, and a whole hour would pass and I could not get past the first sentence. He would say, ‘Well, the hour’s over. Let’s meet next week.’ This must have happened for months, and at some point I started thinking, ‘I don’t know why people think this guy’s so smart.’

Later, [I understood what he was doing]. This is basically just an act. Essentially, I was being unclear about what I was saying, and I did not fully understand what I was trying to explain to him. He was just drilling deeper and deeper and deeper until I realized, every time, that there was actually something I didn’t have clear in my mind. He really taught me to think deeply about things, and I think that’s something I have not forgotten.”

Where Do I Even Begin?

How asking questions can help you find your lede sentence

By Tiffany Fox

“The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead.” — William Zinsser, On Writing Well

By TookapicIs there a science to writing a good opening sentence, otherwise known as a lede?

Maybe not, but there is science that suggests a good lede can mean the difference between your story being read and your story being, well, written off. The harsh truth: You have exactly eight seconds to capture your reader’s attention — unless your reader happens to be a goldfish, in which case you have nine. Continue reading “Where Do I Even Begin?”