If you use quotation marks in non-fiction, the reader expects that the words were actually spoken verbatim by the person quoted. The person quoted expects that as well. It’s what those little speech marks are for.
I find that interviewees are very concerned not to be misquoted. Fair enough too.
Quotes are, by definition, what the person said; the exact words the speaker uttered. If the quotation was long and unclear, then the words can be turned into an indirect quote, such as: Mr Black said… The remainder of the sentence paraphrases and summarises Mr Black’s speech. No speech marks are required for indirect speech.
A very short excerpt of the speech can be included within an indirect quote, and it would therefore need to be inserted within speech marks.
Having written plenty of articles for which I have interviewed one or more people involved, I am very familiar with interviews that meander like a path through a rose garden.
It would be so much easier if the interviewee said every sentence as clearly and directly as I will later want to write them, but it just doesn’t happen that way. Fortunately, I enjoy this aspect of putting articles together.
How do I make the best use of quotes?
- Use the best complete sentences as direct quotes where possible, because they usually add more interest to articles. Use indirect quotes for other speeches.
- Use part sentences, being careful to keep the speaker’s main intent because a part-sentence can be as untruthful as a wrong quote.
- Use a combination of direct and indirect quotes in one paragraph, as noted above.
- Take out some of the fluff by using ellipses (three dots: …) that indicate content has been left out. Like part-sentences, ellipses need to be used responsibly, because you can change the whole meaning of a sentence as much by what you leave out as by what you include.
- A clarifying word or phrase (which is not actually part of the quote) can be inserted by parentheses within a direct quote.
- We tend to speak carelessly, especially in English, using meaningless repetition or padding. These, as well as minor grammatical errors, can be cautiously edited.
Some further tips:
- Beware of guessing the speaker’s meaning. If you don’t know the speaker’s intent, and there is no way of finding out 4 sure, then you’ll either have to leave it out entirely, or – if that quote is really important – include it, and honestly state that you are not sure exactly what the speaker meant by it.
- Recording speech on devices is common these days, but – except in the case of public figures who have to accept that
having their speeches recorded comes with their job – it is still courteous to ask an interviewee if he or she objects to being recorded. I generally state that the use of recorders means that I will get direct speeches recorded exactly, and interviewees are happy with that.
- I like to keep in touch with my interviewees, so I can double-check anything I’m not sure of. Nearly all people I have interviewed have been very reassured by this, which has secured better cooperation.
- I used to offer to send interviewees a copy of my article before sending it to the editor. However, some people took this as an invitation to rewrite my article. Instead, I now will either read out the article (entire, or just what is relevant to them) by phone, or just send them the portion(s) that includes their speech. If they insist on seeing the whole article, I include a caveat that it is my article, and while I will take note of any suggested corrections, I will not feel bound to adjust my article.
Using quotes responsibly is largely a matter of trust, which is naturally worth promoting.
Note: This is a repeat blog.