Do the Math

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to write an in-depth piece on a rare public school program that operated within the local maximum-security prison. It was, at least at the time, the only public school program that offered a traditional high school diploma — not GED — within a maximum-security prison.

It was a fascinating experience, visiting the prison, learning the rules around wardrobe and behavior (it was a men’s prison), then talking to young men who had been convicted of some incredibly serious crimes.

It was eye-opening to say the least, and it had the opportunity to be an incredible story for my portfolio, too, until I made a critical mistake.

The administrator told me it cost $100 a day to house a prisoner, so reducing recidivism would save $365,000 a year — more than the $337,600 spent annually on the program.

I printed his facts verbatim.

Only after the article went to print did I realize that $100/day would equal $36,500 a year, not $365,000 a year. That changes the story considerably.

It should have been an easy mistake to catch — if I had done the math, instead of trusting someone else’s numbers.

Journalists are infamous for being bad at math, but they shouldn’t be. Basic math is a critical component of everyday life, even for a writer.

I’m sorry to say, I made a similar mistake much more recently. I trusted a resume that said a person had worked at their company for 27 years. I had both the start and end date of the individual’s employment, so it would have been simple for me to figure out that he, in fact, worked there for 39 years. But I didn’t stop to do the math — and I ended up with a story that needed a correction.

The takeaway: Don’t take numbers for granted. Do the math yourself.

He said. She said.

Stated. Noted. Uttered.

Laughed. Chortled. Snorted.

The list of words that writers will come up with to attribute quotes is exhaustive.

As in, it exhausts me.

As young writers, we are taught to build our vocabulary, be descriptive and vary our word choice. But in attributing quotes, this advice can be dead wrong.

In almost every case “he said” or “she said” is the best choice to follow a quote.

Why?

First, many of the alternatives are just inaccurate.

Did your source really “laugh” through his entire sentence? Didn’t he get a little breathless?

Wouldn’t your source use a pen and paper, not her voice, to “note” her point?

And how, exactly, can a person “imply” the exact words that came out of his or her mouth?

Using “said” to attribute quotes is not boring or redundant — it’s accurate.

It’s also unobtrusive. As a writer, you should be selecting the direct quotes that are the most poignant and illustrative of your source — why would you distract from their words with flowery attribution?

Yes, there are exceptions. There will be a moment when your readers need to know that the source “whispered” a certain phrase. And, perhaps, “snorted” is both accurate and connotes a tone of sarcasm that wouldn’t otherwise come through in text.

Those cases, however, will be rare. The rest of the time, it’s best to avoid the temptation to overwrite.

“Keep it simple,” she said.

Quoting Sources

Quote are opportunities for your sources to shine (or not, as the case may be*).

Direct quotes give your readers the opportunity to “hear” a voice other than yours and to get to know the person about whom you are writing.

They should be agates in a field of gravel: colorful and rare.

As the writer, it’s your job to ensure that the quotes you choose are accurate representations of your source and that they add to the reader’s experience.

What good quotes are:

  •      The words that came out of your source’s mouth, verbatim
  •      Insights into your source’s feelings, thoughts, rationale
  •      Complete thoughts

What good quotes are not:

  •      Your interpretation of what your source meant
  •      Your entire interview, in your source’s words
  •      Fragments that need explanation and excessive context
  •      Information that you can write more clearly or concisely

Some examples:

She said that the experience was “great.”
This is not an insight into your source, nor a complete thought. Though your source may have used the word “great,” a single-word quote — unless it is a dramatically unexpected word — does not even need quotes. Look for what your source said next: why it was great.

When asked what he liked best about the trip, he said, “the food, the hotel and the skydiving.”
If you need to explain your question, the quote is not strong enough to stand alone. There are times, however, that an incomplete sentence may be worth using — if you set it up well. For example, had the above quote been stronger:
The best part?
“The food, the hotel — and the 10,000-foot fall.”

“I went to Odense for the semester as a study abroad. That’s a city in Denmark. I’m really interested in fairy tales, and Odense is where Hans Christian Andersen — you know, he wrote the Ugly Duckling — that’s where he’s from, and they have a museum to him there.”
If you can recount the facts better than your source, do. Save the quotes for the parts you can’t do better: the thoughts and feelings.
Her interest in fairy tales led her to study abroad in Odense, Denmark, the birthplace of The Ugly Duckling author Hans Christian Andersen. “They’ve turned his childhood home into a museum. I could just see him as a child dreaming up stories — just like I did.”

Over time, you will develop an ear for a good quote. You will know, in the middle of an interview, which sentences are especially important to record word for word, and you’ll find yourself writing your stories around the best quotes.

In the meantime, look in your sources’ answers to your most complex questions: the whys and hows.

 

* Illusions of objective journalism aside, how you use a quote is, ultimately, subjective. Your responsibility is to be as honest as possible. If you’re covering a public official for the news, you might choose to let your source back himself into a corner, if that’s in the public interest. If you’re writing a feature profile (say, er, of an alumnus of the university you work for, for the university website), you might be more forgiving in your quote selection — but still authentic and honest.

Get Involved!

As a young reporter in Alaska, I was assigned a story on the local cadre of Young Marines.

Early on a Saturday morning, I headed to the local fire training center, where teenage boys were rappelling down a three-story tower.

I watched from the bottom, taking notes on the activity, talking to the leaders, and gathering quotes from some of the young men. I had enough for the story I was assigned.

But then, they asked if I wanted to try it out — if I wanted to climb the stairs to the top of the tower, let someone harness me up, then step backwards into thin air.

Yes. Yes, I did.

Not only was the experience awesome, but the story was so much better, because I could describe the steepness of the steps, the final climb by ladder, the structure of the harness, the coarseness of the rope, the adrenaline rush of the controlled fall.

Now, I haven’t always chosen to participate in my stories. In Wyoming, when I was writing a piece about life on the local Native American reservation, I was invited to partake in peyote ceremony. I was curious, but that particular experience wasn’t within the scope of my story — and I had to drive back to town an hour or so later — so I opted out.

Your level of participation is, of course, a choice. But the more you can get involved — the more you can see firsthand, whether by participating yourself or just shadowing your subject through their activities — the richer and more authentic your writing will be.