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Journalists rely on interviews to get vital and original information, but not everything that sources say is clear, precise, grammatical or quotable enough to use the source’s exact words. I learned the advice that follows from some great journalism teachers I have known: Carole Rich, Paul Jess and Frank E. Fee Jr. Now I’m passing it along to you.

Human speech is full of pauses and stutters and repetition.

So we have two choices: either quote directly (using quotation marks, “said” and the name of the source) or paraphrase (summarize what the source meant but don’t use his or her words verbatim).

The simple rule is to paraphrase the ordinary and quote the extraordinary.

Base your decision on whether the speaker expressed himself or herself clearly and whether quoting directly would have more impact than merely paraphrasing.

Example: If a source told you purely factual information (let’s say a house fire that destroyed a home and the owner says “That house was worth $150,000,” that’s just fact. You should still use the information and say where you got it, but you don’t have to use the exact words.

But if the quote said, “That house was worth $150,000. It’s a total loss. My entire life’s savings was tied up in the place, and now it’s gone,” that tells something more than facts; it tells how much the loss hurts.

In that case, try using the paraphrase as a transition to the quote:

 Lee Mockbee, the owner, said the $150,000 house was a total loss.

“My entire life’s savings was tied up in that place, and now it’s gone,” he said.

That’s an example of paraphrasing the ordinary and quoting the extraordinary. (Note, by the way, that the quote is placed in its own paragraph. Do this in most situations).

What you’re doing there is stating a fact, then using the quote to drive home why that fact is significant. You can use a quote to show the frame of mind of the source, too, or to show what they made of a situation.

Here are seven tips for effectively handling quotes and attributions in news writing:

  1. Get to the point: Keep the attribution out of the way. In print and online writing, the attribution goes after the first sentence in a quote. In the attribution, “said” goes after the subject.

Incorrect: Gov. Rick Snyder said in a statement, “Michigan is a welcoming state and we are proud of our rich history of immigration.”

Incorrect: “Michigan is a welcoming state and we are proud of our rich history of immigration,” said Gov. Rick Snyder in a statement.

Correct: “Michigan is a welcoming state and we are proud of our rich history of immigration,” Gov. Rick Snyder said in a statement.

Incorrect: Curtis LeMay, a former U.S. Air Force chief of staff, said, “I never said let’s bomb them back to the stone age.”

Incorrect: “I never said let’s bomb them back to the stone age,” Gen. Curtis LeMay, a former U.S. Air Force chief of staff, said.

Correct: “I never said let’s back them back to the stone age,” said Sen. Gen. Curtis LeMay, a former U.S. Air Force chief of staff.

2. In print and online writing, attribute at the first natural break. Usually, this is at the end of the first quoted sentence, but attribution can come in midsentence if there’s a logical place. Attributions usually do not go before the quote in writing for the eye. This differs from the practice in broadcast writing, which typically puts the attribution immediately before the sound bite. 

Incorrect: “The 100-year flood level is,” State Engineer Dolores Bootz said, “a figment of planners’ imaginations.”

Better: “The 100-year flood level,” State Engineer Dolores Bootz said, “is a figment of planners’ imaginations.”

Better yet: “The 100-year flood level is a figment of planners’ imaginations,” State Engineer Dolores Bootz said.

3. In a quote with multiple sentences, the attribution goes after the first sentence.

Incorrect: “Michigan is a welcoming state and we are proud of our rich history of immigration. But our first priority is protecting the safety of our residents,” Gov. Rick Snyder said in a statement.

Correct: “Michigan is a welcoming state and we are proud of our rich history of immigration,” Gov. Rick Snyder said in a statement. “But our first priority is protecting the safety of our residents.”

4. Show when you change speakers. Help the reader. Who’s talking here?

Congress got an earful about campaign finance reform on its first day of hearings.

“I think the way they have been financing election campaigns is the crime of the century,” John Dash, a conservative, told Congress.

“Money is hard to come by, especially for politicians, and some allowances have to be made somewhere,” Marcia Greenwood told the panel.

(The reader only finds at the end of the third paragraph that the quote was not a continuation of John Dash’s comment. So, begin Greenwood’s quote with the attribution so it reads like this:

Marcia Greenwood told the panel, “Money is hard to come by, especially for politicians, and some allowances have to be made somewhere.”

BUT: In general, ONLY put the attribution at the start of a quote when it is necessary to make it clear that there is a new speaker.

5. Avoid fragment or orphan quotes. They don’t help — usually — although there are exceptions.

6. Use only the best quotes; paraphrase the rest.

7. Respect the quotation marks. Don’t put words in the speaker’s mouth, and don’t take them out indiscriminately. The AP’s rule is that a quote is a fact. You can’t change a fact and you can’t change a quote. If the quote is troubled, your options are: delete altogether or paraphrase.

8. Delete words or phrases within the quote to create a partial quote, or, if you are using the quote as a full sentence, replace the deleted material with ellipses to show readers something was deleted. You also can supply parenthetical explanatory material, but only with great care.

Buried leads (or to the old-school journalist, “ledes”) are a common problem for beginning journalism students. As I read a particularly long, throat-clearing buried lead, I had a Chance the Gardener thought. If you have seen “Being There,” you will get what I mean by that. If not, watch this. If you don’t need the reminder, here is what occurred to me. It is quite lengthy; I will try to remember it all:

It is important to remove the weeds from the garden. If you do not remove them, they will take up all the sunlight and the flowers in the garden will die. But if you remove the weeds, the flowers will get sun and bloom. You must be careful to keep weeding because they will try to come back and overgrow the garden.

Getting to the point matters.

That is particularly true in a relatively short story of, say, 500 words. Throat-clearing leads — those that take too long to deliver the most critical information and/or the news peg — waste space. Say in 75 words what you could say in 20 and you choke out room for a couple of quotes or more details about the event you’re writing about.

Throat-clearing leads also try your reader’s patience. A short story is usually not the right piece to attempt a scene-setter lead. Adequate scene-setting takes space. It is a form of ornamentation that works extraordinarily well if you have the space for it. There is a place for narrative and scene-setting leads in the news just as there is a place for certain kinds of plants in a large-enough garden.

But plants that are beneficial in one context are harmful in others. In the wrong place, they become weeds. I love mint, but if you let it out of a container and onto your yard it will take over the whole place and the other plants will die because the mint consumes all the water and sunlight and soil nutrients.

Put the plant of ornamentation in the wrong space and you have introduced weeds to the garden of your words that choke out quotes, context and details that would help the reader learn more about the subject rather than wonder what you left out in order to write that lengthy lead.

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