Quoting Inarticulate People

Writers love quotes because they add human interest and immediacy, but most people you want to quote don’t talk clearly. You have several options: don’t quote them, paraphrase, use a partial quote, ask the question again, or sharpen the answer.

You use a quote because it’s the best way to explain something or to capture character. But quotes require a lot of apparatus (attribution, identifying speakers, and context), so you should use them sparingly. Don’t quote just to quote. And apply even more rigor to poorly-phrased quotes. So first, just leave them out.

You can always paraphrase a quote. If you can write it better than the source said it, you probably should. Some paraphrases include short bits of quoted material, what we call a “partial” or “fragmentary” quote. For example, your source says about his mother, “Well, you know, she’s sorta with it, or not, um, in, out of it, um, you know, just occasionally lucid.” The quote’s a mess, not worth its space or confusion, but you like the way it characterizes the speaker’s frustration with his mother. So you can drop a partial quote into a paraphrase, like this: Jonas’s mother, “just occasionally lucid,” seldom finishes her sentences.

Partial quotes tax the readers’ patience. Readers wonder what the rest of the sentence said, what you’ve left out. And multiple voices in the same sentence always have the potential to confuse. Fragmentary quotes are also so easy as to become a habit.

The real solution is to fix the quote as you hear it and realize it has problems. You respond, “Can you say that again?” or “I don’t understand that,” and it usually comes out better the second time. You can also paraphrase on the spot, “What I hear you saying is ….” Some writers, not including me, will then write what was just said and, if the speaker agrees, punctuate it as a quote. I regard that process as a form of fiction, because it leads to conversations like this:
WRITER: Bubba, do you envision using kinesthesic principles to improve your batting average ten percent in the next fortnight?”
BUBBA: Yeah.

If you don’t improve the quote on the spot, you can always call the source later and ask the question again. In my experience, you get a viable quote, and new information.

Sometimes speakers are articulate, but speak jargon your readers can’t understand, like astronomers describing the precession of the equinoxes. Rather than quote them, ask them to help you with the wording of the explanation, what we call a “negotiated paraphrase.”

N.B. Anybody like to contribute an anecdote about a paraphrase or a partial quote that saved your neck, or went awry?

Published in: on February 19, 2009 at 8:28 pm  Comments (1)  

Question Leads

Is it okay to start a piece with a question lead?
Yes, but it depends on how you use it.

I just started this section with a question, and it drew you immediately into the topic. What’s wrong with that? Many newspaper editors object that journalism answers questions rather than asking them, which is pretentious nonsense.

Question leads engage your readers, and, done simply, start you off with a conversational tone. Readers will expect you to answer that question quickly, and get impatient if you don’t, which will help you get to the point. They’re the easiest kind of lead to write.

Questions leads have one drawback: they’re addictive, especially when you feel punk. It’s Monday, and you’re got post-weekend blues, so you get yourself going with a question lead. On Tuesday, you’re coming down with the flu, so you just slide in with a question lead. That night, your dog Stump dies, so you get through Wednesday with a question lead. And on Thursday, …. Question leads are so easy, they can become a crutch.

The best opening for your readers answers the question “What’s this about?” right away. How do you figure that out? Ask and answer a question that strikes at the heart of the matter, like this:
What this about?
Well, is it patriotic to save money in a consumer-spending crisis?
Bingo.

Type the question as a draft lead, then answer it, then develop the topic. When you revise, delete the question and buff up the answer. And you’ll have a terrific lead in record time.

Published in: on February 15, 2009 at 5:26 pm  Comments (3)  

Your Precious Readers

Smart writers write for smart readers. Better, smart writers create smart readers. The Wall Street Journal writes for business experts, who became business experts by reading the Wall Street Journal.

You treasure your readers by the way you treat them, word by word.

Who are your readers? For clarity, we write for “general readers,” meaning people who are not experts on the subject, even if they are. In fact, the general reader is a fiction, a composite of the skills and knowledge of actual readers. If the readers are general, their knowledge is general, not specific, so we have to explain things to them. Smart writers take responsibility for their readers’ understanding.

For example, sometimes you have to use a technical term your readers might not know. If they stumble over the undefined term, they keep reading, but they’re not understanding. And they’re not paying attention because subconsciously they’re still wondering about that term. Readers who wonder aren’t paying attention. So you define the term.

Writers worry that defining might come off as condescension, fearing to offend readers by defining a term they might already know. Forget that. Readers will thank you for not assuming they know the term, and a good definition sharpens what follows it.

You have to use common sense in choosing what to define. You probably wouldn’t define “mayor,” but you might define “credit default swap.” Actually, in some cases, you might define “mayor,” for instance to differentiate that official from the city manager. Context determines what you define; Fine Cooking and Computerworld have different thresholds. And too much defining becomes tedious, so limit the number of technical terms.

How smart are your readers? They’re just as smart as you are, but they don’t know what you know. You know more because you researched the subject, not because you’re somehow superior. When you explain things to them, you’re not “dumbing down” the material, you’re “smarting up” your readers.

Some writers picture their readers as they write. Some write for specific, actual persons, usually not a good idea because you know what they know, but not what other readers know. I asked Bill Blundell if he wrote for a specific reader. He replied that he wrote for “the guy on the next barstool.” I asked if that guy really wasn’t Bill himself. He grinned and said, “No, but he’s very like me.”

If you make your readers smarter, they’ll keep reading you.

Published in: on February 10, 2009 at 7:52 pm  Leave a Comment  

Developing your Idea

One process seldom discussed can determine the speed and success of a writing project. How do you move from acceptance of an idea to gathering material to write it?

Since you have not done much if any gathering yet, everything in this stage must remain tentative. The magic question “What’s this about?” becomes “What’s this likely to be about?”

You can think of the Gathering stage as not only accumulating information, but also achieving focus. The idea sharpens up as you learn things, and what you learn as you go along leads to increased clarity and more directed Gathering. Suddenly, you realize you’ve got what you need, and you can move to the next step: Organizing.

To develop an idea, you need a few things that create a Gathering plan:

1. What documentary sources do I need, and which ones do I need first?
2. Which people do I need to talk to, and in what order?
3. Who can lay out the ground for me and suggest sources, i.e., who’s my Pathfinder?
4. Who is actually involved in what I’m writing about, i.e., the Actors?
5. Who are the commentators who can supply context and interpretation later?
6. Who has a stake in these issues?
7. Who will read this piece, and what can I assume they know?
8. What visuals (photos, graphics, charts, etc.) might help my reader?
9. What’s my target length and my deadline?
10. And the magic question: What’s this likely to be about?

All this planning may sound like overkill if you’re writing, for example, a short piece on Valentine cookies, with two recipes. You don’t need a pathfinder or a commentator, but you might want an actor, someone actually doing the baking. You also need someone to test the recipes to make sure they work. And you’ll need a couple of photos. If the cookies have tricky folds, you might need a diagram. Knowing all that makes Gathering quick.

Or suppose you’re writing a book over a period of years. You need more detailed answers to those questions, but remember where you are in the writing process, at the beginning of Gathering. As you gain information and understanding, the list of what you need will change and grow. That’s the fun of writing books.

Let’s take the opposite case: 4:11 p.m., cover a fire at the corner of 7th Street and Poinsettia Avenue, deadline 5:30! You obviously don’t have time for planning. Well, you do, because first you have to get to 7th and Poinsettia, and you use the transit time to think out what you need to gather. Television crews do this kind of tactical planning every time, with the reporter and the photographer rehearsing what they expect to find and do. That’s why they’re so fast.

All this is planner thinking. Some writers prefer just to plunge right in, making phone calls and letting things develop. If you have lots of time, just plunging in can work. You can recoup from false starts. But such plunging around is slower and more likely to miss important things. The kind of questions asked above don’t take long; in fact, you keep asking them all the way through Gathering. They give you confidence that you know what you’re after, and you’ll know when you’ve got it.

People who think about what they’re doing as they do it, do it better.

Published in: on February 9, 2009 at 3:37 pm  Leave a Comment  
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