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.]