Writing Tip: What’s That You Say?

The Hartford Courant recently began aggregating content from other media outlets. Unfortunately, it wasn’t always attributing the content and has apologized. Whether intentional or not, presenting someone else’s words as your own, in small part or in their entirety, is called plagiarism, and it’s a big no-no.

Now, I don’t think you, dear readers, are going to pick up someone else’s copy, slap your name on it, and present it for all the world to see. If you were, you wouldn’t be wasting your time reading a blog to help improve your writing.

Yet quotations can be invaluable to your copy. They can offer authority to what you’re saying, colorful commentary, or more information. You must deal with quotes correctly to avoid be called a plagiarist. Today, a brief rundown of handling quotes.

The most important thing to remember is this: if you quote someone, you must identify the quote and who said it. Quotation marks are the most common way to set off a quote, but you can also introduce the quote and then indent the quote itself (as I do later with the Bill Walsh quote).

If the quote is from a written piece, what’s the title of the piece and when was it written? If you quote a Web site, what’s the URL? Even if you don’t publish all this additional information, having it ensures you can back up your claims should anyone question their accuracy.

Can you edit direct quotes? In a word, no. Most authorities, including AP and Chicago, dictate that direct quotations not be altered. Easy enough when you’re quoting the written word: just copy and paste. But what about the spoken comment?

Again, don’t alter the quote. If there’s a question about what the person said, ask him or her to clarify. Even if this means following up later, when you realize something’s not clear. Better to check before you publish than fix it after — if you can.

Bill Walsh, copy chief of the national desk at The Washington Post, summarizes dealing with spoken quotes in Lapsing Into a Comma:

This doesn’t mean we need to reproduce every um, every er, every cough; it doesn’t mean a reporter’s transcription errors can’t be corrected; and it certainly doesn’t mean that stories should attempt to re-create dialect (plenty of literate people pronounce should have as “should of”). But it does mean that a reader should be able to watch a TV interview and read the same interview in the newspaper and not notice discrepancies in word choice.

Finally, use quotes judiciously. That’s your name on the piece. Readers are expecting your words, your wisdom. Don’t quote so much that someone else is writing your copy.

If you want more information on quotes, check out The Associated Press Stylebook 2009, The Chicago Manual of Style, or Garner’s Modern American Usage. There are all kinds of style manuals out there, of course, but these are the ones I use most frequently. And if you’re ever in doubt about how to handle a situation, just ask. That’s what your editor is for!

About Erin Brenner

With a BA and an MA in English, Erin has been an editing professional for 15 years, working on a variety of media, especially online. Her niche is business/marketing and online. In addition, she has experience teaching editing to non-editors and coaching writers. In 2008, Erin was bitten by the social media bug...hard. Follow her on Twitter, @ebrenner, and get a daily vocabulary word, a link to the article of the day, and much more. You can also find her on Facebook and LinkedIn.
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