Cleaning up quotes

With quotations, you have four choices: paraphrase, clean up, fragmentary, or verbatim. Actually verbatim quoting is rare because most sources don’t speak clearly enough for prose.

Sources mostly tell us things in conversation, and we have to convert what they say to make it work in prose.

In conversation, the audience is present with the speaker, so you can use informal grammar, pronouns, and gestures, both physical and vocal. I can point to a member of an audience and say, “He’s the one to lead us out of this mess.” If you see the one I pointed at, no problem, but if you’re not present, you have to guess which male I meant. Or I might have said, “Our leader,” as I pointed him out; people who aren’t there will get confused by the sentence fragment. And I might have rolled my eyes as I spoke and pointed, but you weren’t there and didn’t catch that I was mocking him.

In prose, the audience is not present, and we have to turn gestures into description, substitute nouns for pronouns, use more formal grammar, etc. So most quotations have to be messed with, so readers can understand them. Verbatim quoting rarely happens, despite the rhetoric of American journalism that everything between quote marks is exactly as spoken.

Take fillers, for example. We routinely delete fillers such as “well,” “um,’ you know,” etc. They’re really a form of oral punctuation, and we don’t notice them in conversation. But they jump off the page or screen if you leave them in, especially a lot of them. Sometimes we leave one or two in, especially “you know,” just to keep the quote sounding conversational. But if readers notice them, you lose the effect.

Writers routinely and silently clean up quotations, correcting grammatical errors, deleting obscenity, etc. Your source says, “That goddamn pack of thieves up there, you know, are in bed with them.” Problems: swearing, subject-verb disagreement, unclear geographic reference, and an unspecified pronoun. So the quote will probably get manipulated into something like this: “That pack of thieves up there [in Washington] is in bed with [the health-care industry].” And your editor will question the sexual slang of “in bed with.” The messed-with quote is still a mess. So what to do?

First and foremost, you can paraphrase it. In general, if you can write it better than the source said it, you should. Two dominating principles: you have to get it right, and your readers have to understand it. So it might come out like this: “Smith said that Congress is collaborating with the health-care companies.”

Or you can clean it up a little, taking out the filler and the swearing, correcting the grammar, and clarifying the groups involved. And it comes out like this: “Smith criticized both the Congress and the health-care industry: ‘That pack of thieves up there is in bed with them.’” We usually make grammatical changes silently (“are” to “is”) because it might take too much apparatus to tell readers what we did.

Or you can shrink the quote to a couple of fragments, like this: “Smith said that Congress, ‘that pack of thieves,’ is ‘in bed with’ the health-care industry.” You gain in clarity, but the quote is hard to read, and readers will wonder what you left out.

Or you could leave it verbatim and indicate all the changes you made, like this: “That … pack of thieves up there [in Washington] … are [sic] in bed with them [the health-care industry].” See, the more you have to do to make a quote work, the worse it gets, although it’s clearer.

All of these tactics, even verbatim quoting, are a form of fiction. What you publish is not exactly what the person said or how it was said. You have to judge just how fictional you want to be. In hard cases, consult your editor.

You have one other option: leave the quote out. Faced with a problematic quote, ask yourself, “Will this quote add to my reader’s understanding, or do I just want to put it in because I like it? Is it worth all the apparatus I’ll need to make it intelligible?” More often than not, you’ll delete both the quote and the problem.

One other tactic happens much earlier, during interviews. You hear what could make a good quote, but it’s a mess. So you lean forward and say to your subject, “Oh, stop, that’s good, but I didn’t get it all down. Could you say it again?’ And it comes out better the second time. I once asked a source to repeat what she had just said, using nouns for the pronouns. It worked.

[Got any anecdotes about struggling with quotes?]

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Published in: on August 23, 2009 at 1:30 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. In the end, the goal is to accurately convey what the speaker meant. That’s generally what the reader needs to know. We all regularly stumble when we’re speaking. Many reporters would rather defend the quote by saying, “But that’s exactly what he said” – even if it makes the speaker sound like an idiot. If the goal is to show the speaker is an idiot, then fine. If the goal is to make sure the reader knows the point the speaker was trying to make, then the best approach is probably to paraphrase.

  2. Thanks, John. I would argue that if the readers don’t understand a quote, it isn’t accurate.


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