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!

Miniature Tornadoes and Other Joys of the Fleet Science Center

By Xochitl Rojas-Rocha

San Diego’s Fleet Science Center, it turns out, is full of delightful secrets as well as science.

The San Diego Science Writers Association turned out on a chilly January evening to start 2019 with a tour of the city’s popular science museum. We began with a brief overview of the science center itself, and then were released (and encouraged) to find a partner and play alongside the children at the exhibits.

SANDSWA members check out the Fleet’s wood shop. Photo: Steve Murray

The fun bit about science is that you’re never caught up; there’s always something you haven’t explored. The exhibit floor was home to a display with alternating hot and cold coils that taught you about how your body senses differences in temperature; the iconic whisper dishes that demonstrate how a murmur can pass undisrupted over the heads of screaming children from one side of the room to the other; and even a display that uses vapor to show the formation of a tornado, in miniature.

Yet, the highlight of the tour might have been traveling behind the scenes to see how the museum’s IMAX dome theater worked. According to the museum’s website, where you can find a list of current showings, the theater screen can generate images nearly eight stories high. But it’s the machinery behind it all that is so surprising. Two huge reels have to be loaded with the physical film before the audience can enjoy their show. The projector itself is equally massive, and rises from the floor with a deafening rumble. No one makes this technology anymore, which makes the film itself incredibly expensive to replace if it’s damaged. The IMAX dome theater at the Fleet is the last of its kind.

original imax projector circa 1970s
Original IMAX projector, ca. 1970’s. Photo: Lynne Friedmann

Moving into the future, the museum’s goal is to push for stronger connections between existing science education programs. Staff described an ongoing collaboration in Barrio Logan that provides the community with information on whichever topic they want to learn about, including nutrition. Also arriving at the museum in the coming months? An exhibit about the science behind magic — think levitation and invisibility. How would those magical acts work, if they were real?

The human brain loves newness, and so I love visiting places I’ve never been most of all. The tour of the Fleet Science Center was a treat. I’ll be coming back again, just to watch that IMAX projector in action!

What’s Happening at SANDSWA

Happy Folks
Josh, Ramin and Steve bring home the hardware at the recent SD Press Club Awards

There’s a lot going on at SANDSWA, and so little time to cover it, so here’s a quick summary to keep you up to date.

The 45th Annual San Diego Press Club awards ceremony was held on October 30 and SANDSWA members swept the Magazines, Science/Technology/Biotech category. Congrats to Steve Murray, Ramin Skibba and Josh Baxt (now referring to himself in the third person). Steve earned multiple honors that night, and Ramin – our fearless leader – received the Rising Star award.

The National Association of Science Writers (NASW) conference was held this past October in Washington, DC, and Heather Buschman, Patricia Fernandez, Lynne Friedmann, Katherine Leitzell and Ramin Skibba kindly reported out during our most recent happy hour. Here are some highlights:

  • Delegates from 12 regional groups attended the first science writer group congress. They discussed funding sources, events, recruitment, mentoring and leadership.
  • How do we teach scientists to communicate clearly? No surprise, scientists like data.
  • How do we write about gloomy problems like climate change? People may not like the raw science, but they will respond to characters, narrative and suspense.
  • Make sure your writing is culturally competent. Try to walk in another culture’s shoes. Proper spelling means including the appropriate accents (In Spanish año means year; ano means anus). No “Columbusing,” check your writing for references that might devalue formerly colonized people.
  • Embrace video (show, don’t tell)

Of course, this is a summary of a summary, so a tertiary source? Anyway, I know you want more, so check out our fabulous slides.

The Society for Neuroscience conference is having a press reception at the convention center on Sunday, November 4 at 4 pm in room 22. SANDSWA is plotting to pack the event. You can apply for press registration here.

SANDWA’s next awesome happy hour will be held at AleSmith on Tuesday, December 4, at 5:30. You know the drill: drink, chat, eat, network.


Happy Hour at White Labs

Erik Fowler styles us out with information and beer.

Beer is four things: water, barley, hops and yeast. We hear a little about barley and a lot about hops – it’s San Diego and we’ve been IPA’d to death. But yeast, not so much. Maybe we’re a little squeamish because it’s a microorganism.

Regardless, a squad of intrepid SANDSWArs paid a visit to White Labs last Wednesday to learn about the company, the yeast and the beer. Continue reading “Happy Hour at White Labs”

Happy 4th

Image by Tom WalshI hope everyone is having a pleasant and relaxed 4th of July week. I’m reading about liquid biopsies, which is my idea of a good time.

Anyway, a couple of quick reminders. Our Kick-Off Happy Hour is coming next Wednesday at Farmer & The Seahorse. Start time is 5:30. You should register, I guarantee nothing better is going to come along.

Also, we have a Twitter page – @SANDSWA2. You should follow. We promise we won’t troll you about anything, except maybe the Oxford comma. Serious divisions there.

Okay, in summary, come to the happy hour, follow us on Twitter, have a great 4th.

On Becoming a Science Writer

Operating_a_Computer_Keyboard_MOD_45158109People sometimes ask me what I did to become a science writer. It was a circuitous path, but it’s worth noting that my degrees are in history and creative writing. I had to get the science knowledge through other means.

I make this point because it’s not an exclusive field. In some ways, I’m disadvantaged because I have to figure out things I might have learned in undergrad biochem. On the other hand, it becomes a voyage of discovery for me, much like my readers. Now that I know the science better, I have to occasionally check myself because I’ve started using jargon my audience might not understand.

For those who are interested in becoming science writers, from English majors to MD, PhDs, the first requirement is wanting to do it. I love my job, but I still have days when I really don’t want to write at all. It’s not writer’s block (that’s an entirely different post), it’s just work malaise.

My underlying desire to communicate science gets me through. I can’t imagine what it would be like to feel tepid about it. I’d probably have a different career by now.

The second step is writing. At some point, or even many points, people will ask to see your writing samples. You can write a blog (be sure to publish consistently, people notice), do some volunteer writing for your favorite scientific nonprofit, get an internship. Find a way to get the words out.

Take a class or two. UCSD offers an entire science communication program. Some of these classes are taught by SANDSWA board members Heather Buschman and Tiffany Fox, as well as scicomm guru, Lynne Friedmann.

Network like crazy. The San Diego Biotech Network holds periodic events. CG Life is hosting their annual Unwind party on August 9. Other possible resources are PRSA, HCC and IABC.

Also, by the way, SANDSWA is having its first happy hour on July 11 at Farmer & The Seahorse on Torrey Pines Mesa. You should come. We’ll chat more.

Welcome to the San Diego Science Writers Association

Sandiego_skyline_at_nightSan Diego is a science town. You know the players: universities, research institutes, biotechs, medtechs, just plain techs. There are lots of people writing about science, and probably an equal number who think that would be a pretty cool career but haven’t taken the plunge.

So, we have recreated the San Diego Science Writers Association (SANDSWA) to invigorate our science writing community. We are journalists, biotech writers, public information officers, students, teachers…It’s a long list.

We envision an organization where science writers at all levels can meet, tell stories, voice frustrations, share tips and just basically talk shop. We’re not persnickety about who joins. You won’t have to present a bylined article or a blood sample or anything. If you’re looking to break into the industry (we see you, postdocs), we can point you towards classes, offer some advice and perhaps give you a guest blogging opportunity. If you’re an established writer, or just like talking about science, we’re happy to chat.

Right now, we’re nailing down our nonprofit status and developing a road map for the next couple of years. If you have suggestions or would like to volunteer, we’d love to hear from you.

But first, let’s meet in real life. We’re holding a no-host happy hour at the Farmer & The Seahorse on July 11 at 5:30. Come join us to enjoy a couple of cocktails and talk science.