Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Must Quoting be Word for Word?

I’m currently working on a book for TSTC Publishing. It’s the second book I’ve worked on for their TechCareer series. The first one is called TechCareers: Biomedical Equipment Technicians. This one, I assume, will be called Tech Careers: Automotive Technicians.

For the first one I did profiles of BMET employers. After the first book, TSTC Publishing decided one author should do each book and asked me to do this one. On the BMET book, I interviewed three people. For this one, I’ve interviewed 13. I’ll probably do a post soon on what I learned during this interview process, but I thought today I’d talk about quoting.

For each interview, I create a profile for each subject. In this case, a profile is not a life story of the person. It’s a brief bit about his or her background in the field, then some of his thoughts on an aspect of the AUT field. To determine where in the book I’m going to put a particular person’s profile, I look at the transcription and see which person said something relevant to a certain topic or had something solid to contribute to the topic. Then I write his profile with that angle in mind. I can’t use everything the person said in an interview because each interview ran from 30 minutes to over an hour, one or two even longer.

If you’ve not done this kind of writing, you might think this process would be easy. You just throw in the relevant quotes. Even if we don’t get into the actual interview and the hours it takes to transcribe, but only talk about creating the profile, it’s still not an easy task.

You have to decide what to include. Then you have to edit what the person said. And by edit, I don’t mean change what they said. Few people talk as succinctly as they might write. They ramble, they switch directions in the middle of a sentence, they use slang, they correct themselves, they spend three minutes saying what they could have said in fifteen seconds. Now, don’t get me wrong…you can learn a lot in those extra two minutes and forty-five seconds. And slang and speech patterns say a whole lot about the person. As I re-read my transcription of an interview, I can actually hear that person speaking.

But when you’re preparing a quote, you need to cut the extraneous and get down to what the person really said - that nugget of brilliance. You must in no way change their meaning or cut their qualifiers. But if you’ve ever transcribed the exact words of someone speaking off the cuff, you know what was captivating while they spoke can sound like stuttering nonsense when every sentence circles twice before coming back to the point and includes five “wells,” two “you knows,” and one “let me backtrack here.”

So, unless you write for a magazine whose purpose is to lampoon, you have to learn how to quote. It’s something I struggled with for the first book, but have learned how to do with this second one.


  1. I empathize. I used to interview pharmaceutical executives, and the transcripts always stunned me. So I cleaned up their quotes, then sent my finished copy to them for perusal. And recently, a reporter interviewed me about my novel, and I noticed in print that she had cleaned up and combined what I said. It was a good thing. She made me sound better!

  2. Transcription is a pain. And it's not unethical to take out the stutters of "uh" and "um", etc. Nor is it unethical to clean up grammar, especially if the grammar is, or potentially could be, embarrassing to the subject when seen in print. Unless you're writing a local color piece. Of course, sometimes quotes are so tangled, it's just easier to paraphrase and then confirm with the subject to make sure anything you're unclear about is correct.

  3. LJ, it is good to look at it from the point of view of the person being interviewed and ask yourself if you would want your stutterings cleaned up for publication. Good point.

  4. Good point, Todd. There are times when you just have to paraphrase rather than use it as a direct quote.

  5. Off the cuff comments in an interview situation, if meant to be printed eventually, MUST be edited. Sounds like you know what you are doing with respect to that, Helen.

  6. You've been awarded the Honest Scrap award. Please check out http;//joyceanthony.tripod.com/blog for details!

  7. All of my subjects knew they were being recorded, but only one asked me to turn it off for a while. But none of them said anything unprintable. The one who asked that I stopped the recorder just wanted to talk off topic.

  8. Joyce! You sweetie. Or are you? I went over and realized you're asking me to tell 10 secrets about myself.

    Joyce! You sweet devious vixen!


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