Some quotes stand alone, such as the one used as a lead earlier. Most, however, need to be "set up." By this, we mean they must be preceded by information that subtly tells the reader what to expect from the coming quote.
Let's say you are writing an article about an athlete's cocaine problem, and you have a quote that goes something like this: "I had no idea what was happening until it was too late," meaning the athlete had started casually playing around with cocaine on a recreational basis, and gradually, without his even realizing, had gotten hooked. Obviously that quote could not stand on its own, though in a way it tells much of the story. If not properly set up, it would sound ambiguous:
"David had been using cocaine for three years, and now he was losing his position on the team to a rookie. 'I had no idea what was happening until it was too late,' he told me one hot afternoon, sweat pouring from his face."
Until what was too late? Until it was too late to save his job, too late to stop using the drug before being hooked, or both? Here is the same quote properly set up:
David had been using cocaine for three years before he realized that something was wrong. His habit had grown from an occasional snort at a party, to a daily consumption that was now costing him hundreds of dollars each week. His performance had suffered; just one week before we spoke with him, he had lost his position to a rookie—a young jock he had beat out handily at the beginning of the year—and he now knew that the drug was to blame.
'I had no idea what was happening until it was too late,' he told me one hot afternoon, sweat pouring from his face."
The difference, though subtle, is important if we are to know that David is referring to his cocaine habit, rather than his lost position.
How you set up a quote depends entirely on the quote itself. If the quotes you want to use are long, and very informative, little set up may be required. Long quotes, however, can be unduly tedious, and they often involve terms and language unfamiliar to your reader. In this case it is best to choose part of the quote, set it up and follow it with additional information. Here is a verbatim quote from an interview conducted with a scientist who had just discovered cancer-inhibiting chemicals in hamburger:
"What we found in the course of our studies was we found mutagens, but we also found something else that inhibited mutagenesis. What got our interest particularly focused was the fact that it was inhibited only in certain circumstances. That led us to believe that it had some specificity, and we began to develop procedures for partially purifying it.
"We use a grade of ground beef that is commonly used by fast-food operations. Essentially, what we do is to fry hamburgers and then prepare an extract from them using organic solvents. We have also tested extracts from raw hamburger, and find that these as well as the extracts from fried hamburger are able to inhibit the mutagenic activity of certain chemicals, specifically those found in the hamburger itself.
"We first tested our extract using the Ames test."
(In response to the writer's question about the test): "The Ames test is the preeminent short-term test for carcinogens. We also tested a product called 'beef extract'. What we found was that our extract inhibited mutagenesis, but the beef extract did not. This suggested that there was some confounding agent in the hamburger that was not in the beef extract, which is made by cooking beef broth down into a tarry substance."
(Here, the writer asked if inhibiting mutagenesis meant that the extract would inhibit carcinogenisis, or cancer causing activity.): "Yes. Mutagenesis is the kind of activity that often leads to cancer."
Obviously these quotes are too long and include language that would go over the head of an average reader. What the writer did was take the part that would be most interesting coming from a scientist—which is that they used the same kind of ground beef you could find in hamburgers at fast food restaurants—and used that as the quote, adding a short direct quote about the Ames test to validate it as "preeminent." The rest of the conversation was simplified and stated in the writer's own words. Here is the result, which was the passage following the lead in an article titled "Hamburger Helper:"
In recent experiments, University of Wisconsin microbiologist Michael W. Pariza has shown that certain chemicals found in both raw and cooked hamburger inhibit the cancer-causing activity of other chemicals, specifically those found in the hamburger itself. Pariza has been able to extract some of these inhibitors from a familiar grade of ground beef.
"We use a grade of ground beef that is commonly used by fast food operations," said Pariza, "Essentially, what we do is to fry hamburgers and then prepare an extract from them."
This extract was first subjected to the Ames test, which, according to Pariza, is "the preeminent short-term test for carcinogens." Comparing his hamburger extract to Beef Extract—a byproduct of the beef industry made by cooking beef broth down into a tar-like substance—he found that only the Beef Extract showed mutagenic (mutation-causing) activity. This suggested that something in the hamburger was inhibiting the kind of mutation that can lead to cancer.
If, during an interview, you find an interesting, humorous, or odd anecdote, it is best to let the person being interviewed tell it in your article. Anecdotes, however, usually need to be set up in order to make them fit into the flow of the story. Often, the best anecdotes will be somewhat peripheral to the immediate subject, and this sometimes makes it difficult to decide whether or not to use them. However, with the proper introduction and some follow-up, even those that skirt the edges of the central theme can be useful.
Here is an example of an anecdote that was only vaguely related to the main subject. Written for a Forestry trade magazine, the article concerned a specific problem: the destruction of newly planted seedlings by deer, who seem to find them delicious. Mentioning llamas in a story about a deer problem would probably have the readers scratching their heads, so in this case, setting up the quote was very important. Here is how the writer handled it:
Viewing his discovery as an isolated solution to a specific problem, Allen was unprepared for the barrage of inquiries he was soon receiving from other parts of the country. He got calls not only from foresters with deer problems but also from many others, including one rather bizarre message from a woman in Denver.
"When the information was first published," said Allen, "I got calls from all over the country. Many of these concerned problems with deer, but one lady called from Colorado to ask if the pellets would work on llamas. I thought at first she was pulling my leg, but eventually I found that llamas had indeed been introduced to the area some time back and were now running around eating all kinds of domestic plants, including the lilacs, which were her main concern."
Application of the technique to other trees and plants for the control of several types of predators is certainly feasible, though much research will need to be done in order to understand the effects of selenium and to develop a proper dosage for each specific situation.
When conducting your interviews, it is important to draw out any anecdotes you can. Even if you eventually decide you can't use them, they help your interviewee relax, and some can add just the right quality to your articles, making them sound less contrived and more real.
Asking for anecdotes does not necessarily mean that you have to say, "Can you think of any anecdotes about this subject?" More often the question, "Could you give me an example?" will lead your subject into some analogy, whether based in fact or fancy, that can be used as an anecdote. The most important thing to remember is to let the interviewee tell the story. Later you will put it in the proper frame by setting it up, and, when necessary, adding more information.
Those hardworking journalists who make up the "front line" of the information media have no time to check with their subjects to see if they have gotten a particular quote correct. Most newspaper writers work on deadlines that are figured in minutes, not weeks or months. Even if they had the time to clear their quotes with those they have interviewed, in many cases they would find themselves arguing with someone who swears, "I never said that." Magazine writers, however, are in a different ball game.
As we mentioned earlier, the plethora of libel suits against journalists and the publications for which they work has caused most editors to be very cautious about getting the facts straight. The courts are also less inclined to give magazines the same benefit of the doubt they give newspapers, for the simple reason that newspaper writers work on an almost immediate deadline. Magazine writers, on the other hand, usually work on a deadline that is either nonexistent, or of long enough duration to allow for a thorough checking of the facts. Add to this the editor's usually long lead time (the time it takes for an article to go from acceptance to print), and you can see why the courts seldom forgive factual discrepancies.
Most of the people you interview will not be aware that the spoken word is far different from the written one, and if they heard themselves quoted word for word they would probably not believe they were capable of speaking in such ungrammatical style.
We have already suggested that all your quotes (with the exception of those garnered during the creation of a hard-hitting investigative piece) should be cleared with those you are quoting if the editor agrees. It is here that any problem with rewording will be taken care of. If you don't do this, you may find that your perfectly accurate quotes are simply denied when the magazine's fact checkers contact your sources. Once you get a few interviews under your belt and have the opportunity to transcribe them word for word, you will realize that such things as sensible punctuation, proper phraseology and good syntax do not occur very often when a person is speaking. Instead, they will hem and haw, repeat words sometimes three and four times, break sentences in the middle, and create sentences that would look ridiculous in print.
Here is an excerpt from an interview transcript that shows how difficult it can be to interpret in writing exactly what an interviewee is trying to say:
Interviewer: "Are you saying that all living cells emit electric currents?"
"It is not the statement that all living cells carry electric currents. It appears to act like a little radio station and emit oscillating electronic fields. All the types of cells we have looked at, that is, which include bacteria, algae, fungi, yeast, and then cells that are avies, red blood cells from avies, and then various embryonic or normal cancer cells from mammals, mice in particular, and in all these instances we've seen it. Electric fields and radio waves are essentially the same thing: electromagnetic, and our experiment showed that such fields do emanate, they are detectable emanating from cells."
This is a verbatim rendering of what was said. However, pulling a quotable quote out of it would be like transmuting lead into gold. It can be done, but the cost is enormous. When the writer called this particular researcher back, and read the quote that was derived from this mishmash of verbiage, the interviewee had only one comment: "That sounds fine." here is the quote that was used:
"As a result of this experiment," said the researcher, "we showed that living cells do indeed seem to generate electric fields."
Granted, the interviewee never said those words, at least in that order, but they were a good representation of what he was saying. He knew it, and so did the writer, and, thankfully, the readers never had to try to figure out what was going on from his original rendition.
Though you can and should reword certain quotes, never do so in order to create more sensationalism or change what you know was the intended meaning. That practice should be reserved for the supermarket tabloids (though it is certainly not exclusive to that medium). You will immediately lose the respect of your subject if, for example, you remake the statement "We don't anticipate this being available for several years," into "The new process will be available to the public shortly."
Let us reiterate that accuracy is an absolute rule for any kind of journalism. Accuracy, however, does not mean littering your prose with "accurate" quotes that sound as if they are being spoken by illiterate nincompoops. If you, as we suggest, clear all your quotes with your subjects, there will be no problem with inaccuracy, and by wording them in such a way as to make them readable and grammatically correct, you not only do yourself a favor, but your sources and your readers as well.
There is one other method of garnering quotable quotes, and that is to ask, during your interview the question, "May I quote you as saying . . .?" Many times you will think of a quote that would fit your needs, but try as you might, you won't be able to get your subject to utter the words.
Say you are interviewing someone about an experience with natural childbirth, and the subject—a man—is waltzing all around his feelings, saying things like, "It wasn't at all like they told me," and "There was a great deal of inconvenience involved." You sense that what he is really trying to say is that the whole experience was a drag.
There is nothing wrong with asking him if he doesn't mean "the whole experience was a drag," and if so, would he mind being quoted as such. In some cases, he will say no, but in others, the words you "put into his mouth" are likely to be just what he wanted to say all along, and you will end up with a much more colorful quote. You are, after all, the writer—the one who is supposed to have a "way with words."
This method is especially helpful when you are interviewing people whose expertise in a certain area makes it hard for you to understand what they are trying to say. If you have a hard time understanding the subject, conveying it to your readers will be next to impossible. It helps to explain that the article is being written for a general audience, however, many scientists, economists, even sports figures and entertainers, often do not realize when they are using language that is familiar only to their contemporaries.
A good example of this can be seen in the language of scientific journals. If you were to write "Dr. Boatner's theory of non-linear dynamics for photoreactive phase hologram storage," in any article for the general public, you would essentially be putting a brick wall between your readers and the next word. However, that is precisely the title of a paper one interviewee recommended R. LeBeaux read before writing an article on his work. In R. LeBeaux's own words:
"In this case, I was forewarned of the problems I might have with the interview by the simple fact that he imagined I would be able to understand the paper. I knew the essence of his discovery: that holographic, or three-dimensional movies, could be stored in crystals. But after speaking to him for a few minutes, I realized there was little chance he would say anything that I could use as a quote in my article. Here is an excerpt from that interview:
'Bell did lithium niobate experiments, taking crystals with interference patterns—inhomogenous electronic charge distribution—and doping them. They then heated them and used ions to replace electronic distribution. When cooled, the ions didn't move around like electrons, and it became essentially permanent.'
"When I finally asked Dr. Boatner if he didn't mean, 'Some techniques have been developed that make possible the long term storage of three-dimensional images in pieces of crystal,' and that this was, 'similar to what we saw in the movie Superman, when he visited his Fortress of Solitude and played the history of Krypton back using crystals left him by his parents,' he said, 'Right. That's exactly it.'
"I asked him if he would mind if I quoted him as saying that? I said most of my readers would have a hard time understanding if they couldn't see it in simpler terms, and he had no problem with that. When I called him to read the final copy, he approved it immediately, as if the words were actually his.
"I have created hundreds of quotes from the raw material of interviews, and never once have I been accused of deliberately altering someone's words. That's not to say my subjects haven't asked for changes in those quotes. They have, in some cases, but never has someone said to me, 'That is not what I said.' Some have even assumed they misspoke, and have gone on to correct the quote as if they had stated the facts incorrectly themselves."
The fact is, most people in the public eye know they are capable of saying things in a way that they wouldn't if given a second chance. Your willingness to let them have last refusal on the accuracy of their own words is, in a way, telling them that they can still "clean up their act," before the public gets a look at it. If you help out with the cleaning process, you will not only enhance the value of the article, but save them having to rethink and restate what they meant to say in the first place.
Famous quotes are most often used in the closing paragraph, or as subheadings of articles, and often will be added by an editor. The words, "As Shakespeare said..." can sometimes add just the right touch to a final sentence, as can some humorous quote from Andy Warhol, Robert Kennedy, or any of a hundred others.
For the most part, however, looking for a quote to use is generally a good way to find out how you want to say something. Not that you should steal quotes (this is not only unethical, you will be caught) but just browsing through famous lines that concern your subject will often lead you to the perfect way to say what needs to be said.
Writers often use quote books in the same way they use the Thesaurus. When they come across a thought that is difficult to convey, they look through these books in categories related to their subject. Many times, before they discover a quote to use, the proper words will pop into their head, and they end up saying it themselves.
Do not be afraid, however, to use famous quotes where they seem appropriate. They can often add humor, poignancy, and a sense of timelessness to your writing. One thing to remember, though, is not to use them just to make people think you have a large store of knowledge. We have all met the person who is constantly quoting famous figures in casual conversation, in order to say, "Look how much I know." Use famous quotes only if they enhance the value of your story, never as window dressing.