My July/August column focused on the notion that good journalism thrives on good quotations. We said it was up to the writers to ensure that those quotations were indeed good. And by good, we meant that they displayed the same characteristics as good writing itself: clear, brief, accurate and conversational.
That column also stressed the point that we never have to accept poorly expressed quotations because we always have the paraphrase.
We writers have full power over our stories and should seize that power on our readers’ behalf. Everything in our stories is there because we put it there. That’s as true of poor speaking as it is of poor writing. “That’s what they said” is never a reason to allow inaccurate or incomprehensible expression into our stories.
Our job is to be intelligent translators, not mere tape recorders. And skillful paraphrasing allows us to fix inscrutable quotations.
Here are three brief but improperly handled quotes:
• “The number of women lawyers is growing expotentially,” she said.
• “Republican disappointment was deep and palatable,” he said.
• “My 93-year-old mother lives with my husband and I,” she said.
The first example’s nonword “expotentially” was enclosed in quotation marks. That treatment not only impolitely focused on the speaker’s mistake, it also failed to fix it. And it diverted the reader’s attention from message to mechanic. A better way to present this quote is to paraphrase it:
• She said the number of women lawyers was growing exponentially.
In the second example, the word “palatable” is the wrong word. The speaker surely meant “palpable.” Again, we can rescue the quote — as well as the speaker — with a paraphrase:
• He said Republican disappointment was deep and palpable.
The third example shows a common but (to many) teeth-gritting grammatical error. Again, give the speaker a break, fix the pronoun, and paraphrase:
• She said her 93-year-old mother lived with her husband and her (or: with her and her husband).
Sometimes, a quote’s presentation is the problem, not its content:
In a question and answer session with the publishers, he called the … [projected deficit] “disturbing,” and said he would prod Congressional leaders to forge a budget “in the next couple of weeks.”
Better to paraphrase throughout rather than to repeatedly disrupt the passage with fragments, ellipses and parentheses:
Responding to a question from the publishers, he said the projected deficit was disturbing and that he would prod Congress to forge a budget within the next couple of weeks.
As invaluable as the paraphrase is in good writing, however, it’s in no way superior to direct quotes — if the direct quotes are brief, bright, clear and dramatic. For example:
Her lawyer asked her what she thought of the defendant’s repeated denials — in the face of the facts. She said she wasn’t surprised because he “wasn’t very bright.”
The lawyer then asked her what she meant by that, and she said she guessed she meant that sinners could convert, but stupid is forever.
Here is that passage presented as dialogue, using direct quotes:
“What did you think of the defendant’s repeated denials,” her lawyer asked, “in the face of the facts?”
“I wasn’t surprised,” she said. “He wasn’t very bright.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I guess I mean that sinners can convert, but stupid is forever.”
Journalists seldom use storytelling devices. But dialogue — with its brevity, white space, simplicity, drama, human voice and conversational style — can showcase quotations that otherwise might get lost. Beyond that, it’s good for writers to occasionally break with journalistic custom. Failure to experiment or innovate can sometimes spell a creative dead end.