© 2008 -- 2011 the Grandpa at The Word Mechanic. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

I didn't say that

The first article that I actually got paid for (winning essay contests when you're in elementary school doesn't count as getting paid) was an article about an education program run by the local chapter of the Arthritis Foundation. I wrote it for the press office of United Way, and I dropped it off to the editor in person. She told me to have a seat and then took the article out of the envelope and proceeded to read it with a red pen in her hand in front of me. When she finished, she looked up at me, smiled, and said, "Not bad. We just need to add a couple of quotes. We'll put one here, one here, and another one here. . . ." As she said that, she took the red pen and put quotation marks on either side of several sentences.

Writing feature articles -- especially "writing for hire" -- is not the same thing as writing news articles where accurate quotations are absolutely essential. Quotes in an article about treating allergies or building model airplanes generally aren't there to become part of the public record. They are there to add authority, offer a particular perspective, make the writing interesting, and accomplish other similar goals. The rules are different than the rules for putting quotes in newspapers or in an article about foreign policy in The Nation.

So what are the rules?
  • The first one is you don't make things up out of thin air. If you are going to quote someone, what's said in the quote needs to actually have come from the person who said it.
  • The second rule is that while you can selectively use what a person says and actually rearrange the order in which it was said, you provide enough information so you don't take what was said out of context. It's wrong to use it in a way the person would never have intended.
  • The third rule is you maintain as much as possible the actual voice of the person you are quoting without making that person sound like an idiot.

So these rules aren't really that hard to understand, are they? So why do I get copy from "professional" writers writing for an educational Web site like this:

"Stress is certainly a factor in individuals with any common disease," Jones says. "Reducing stress with yoga, breathing exercises or diet are all benefits. I would never say don't take your medication for acute disease management, but it's not just about medication or allergy shots. It's about treating the stress and immune systems and we're learning that every day."

Now if I were Dr. Jones, I'd certainly call the Web site publisher and say, "I never said anything like that at all." The truth is he probably did because, for the most part, we don't talk the way we write. And I'm guessing all the writer did was simply copy the quote directly from her notes or the transcript of her interview tape. But even so, if the writer isn't going to take the time to see if the quote actually makes sense, it would have been a simple courtesy to have reviewed the quotation with Dr. Jones and given the good doctor a chance to show that he actually is literate.

But obviously, neither one of those things happened. So the editor's job is to sort out the language that's there, decide what the actual message is, and what part needs the weight of authority, what's not important, and what needs to get the emphasis. Obviously, there's more than one way to handle the information. Here's what I did:

“I would never say don't take your medication,” Jones says. “But it's not just about medication or allergy shots.” Jones tells HealthyNewsSite.com that stress is a common problem for anyone with a health condition. And, he says, using techniques such as yoga, breathing exercises, and diet to reduce stress can be very beneficial.

Moving the quote about taking medication to the start of the passage gives the whole passage an air of traditional authority: the doc says take your medicine. But then, the second quote emphasizes there is more to it than just that. The reader has been alerted -- by the doctor -- to the fact that what follows is the important part of the message. Now there's no longer any reason to put the rest of the message in quotes. The good doctor sounds intelligent. The garbled message has been sorted out, and the reader knows it's important to do something about reducing stress.

[NOTE: Dr. Jones and HealthyNewsSite.com are fictitious names. Why? I need to be able to keep working for this client.]


  1. OK before anyone gets any cleverer than they are, how are doing that linky thing at the bottom? :))

    When I click the button there it just pops up a new window in my own "create a post" box...I don't get it. No comments on the post until I get the goods, Grandpa :)

  2. Thank you for that. It's pleasant when the interest is interesting and educational!

  3. Cool Grandpa! I never knew that you could arrange quotes. I like the distinction that we don't speak like we write, because of course we are usually more organized when we write (one hopes). I, however, have been told that I write on my blog "just like I talk" which I took as a compliment.

  4. Excellent lesson. You ROCK! Aloha-

  5. Thanks for the lesson Grandpa, very interesting. I also liked you note at the end.

  6. Sound common sense really, but needs saying often as it often gets trampled on in the full flush of creative enthusiasm.

  7. I'm not doing it, Braja. I'm hoping someone is going to tell me. WE should probably ask Willow, because hers was the first one I saw.

  8. I found it fascinating hearing how an editor renders spoken words into quotations. How interesting that the meaning is more important than accuracy. I often think of these points when writing dialogue. People break grammar rules all the time in speech, but we understand them. Proper English in a dialogue can look stilted.

  9. Sarah's points I can totally relate to. I know of editors who aren't writers, and I always tell them, "Go and write your own book, then come back." They quite often miss the nuances and dance of the words by being sticklers for grammar and placement. The same is true in translation: a poem, a joke, even a news report, can lose it's meaning in translation....

    Hmmm...well, that's a mystery Grandpa...I have no idea how that works...who is Willow?

  10. " - maintain as much as possible the actual voice of the person you are quoting without making that person sound like an idiot."

    Tough to do when you start quoting SOME people... heck when my wife reminds me of things that I have said I sound like an idiot ALL the time!

  11. I never said editing was easy, Marty. :0)

  12. Thank you for sharing and thank you for following my blog. I love your comments. :) I turned my husband onto your blog. He loves this kind of thought process.