How to quote sources, characters responsibly & well

One of the hardest things to do in writing is to render the voices of our characters and sources. In print we call them quotes. On television they are soundbites. On NPR they are “actualities,” what the source actually said.

There are so many journalistic, aesthetic and ethical considerations on quoting sources that they can’t possibly fit in a simple list.

What defines a good quote?

What’s the ideal length for a quote?

Can you begin or end with a quote?

Can you tinker with the language in a quote, for clarity or grammar?

What if the sources speaks in slang, profanities or other non-standard usages?

What’s the difference between quotes and dialogue?

We explored this topic in this week’s writing chat. You can replay the chat here:

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  • Kendy Đạt

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  • Dave Knepper

    If ever you listen closely to a recording of an interview, you’ll start to appreciate the enormous amount of editing direct quotes require in order to be intelligible. RPC is correct. Use the same editing standard for the mayor as for the janitor.

    The Florida Trend feature interviews are completely composed of direct quotes. The interviewers’ excellent, albeit invisible, questions are the key to utilizing quotes properly.

    One man’s rarely used spice is another man’s pepper salad.

  • Joseph O’Sullivan

    Another thought on quoting accurately: If I’m taking an interview by pen and the subject says something clearly interesting, I’ll immediately ask them to repeat themselves. They’ll almost always do it verbatim, and it allows you solid confirmation without allowing them the opportunity to later walk it back.