Style Matters #39: Attribution is an art form all writers should master

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Whether you work in a busy newsroom, a home office or for a magazine or book publisher, how you handle quoted speech is a clear marker of your professionalism.

I had the essentials about attributing direct speech drummed into me by a crusty former US wire service copy editor, Len Granato, who became head of journalism in my second year of tertiary studies.

He was pretty formidable back then, but the discipline he instilled in us as teenagers has stayed with me for more than three decades.

Introduce speakers before letting them speak

I can still remember the late Dr Granato – who, after he entered academia, was the author of several books and book chapters on reporting and writing news and features – insisting that speakers be introduced by their title, first name and family name before even they were quoted, either directly or indirectly.

That way, he’d say, the reader would always be clear who was speaking, especially in stories where multiple sources were going to be quoted.

There are three quote types

Even beginner writers will realise quotes come in three versions: the direct (or full) quote, the partial quote and the indirect quote.

The first two require quotation marks around words that have been spoken and feature an attribution phrase that identifies the speaker. The last one does not require quotation marks at all.

Examples:

(direct quote containing a full sentence)
XYZ Laboratories analyst Syd Kneebone said soil samples had been taken after the incident.
“The results will only be known after testing concludes,” the pathologist said.

(partial quote)
XYZ Laboratories analyst Syd Kneebone, who is examining soil samples taken after the incident, said results would “only be known after testing concludes”.

(indirect quote, often used when you need to reword/shorten a direct quote)
According to XYZ Laboratories analyst Syd Kneebone, the results of soil samples taken from the scene will not be known until testing concludes.

  • As I noted in an earlier posting, the usual verb of attribution with directly quoted speech in news stories is said, rather than says, however the latter is acceptable in features and entertainment copy. The former acknowledges the quote was said in the past, while the latter adds immediacy and intimacy to non-news copy.
  • In the above examples, note the placement of punctuation as quoted speech terminates. The approach in Australia and UK newsrooms – where commas and full points sit inside full quotes and outside partial quotes – is opposite to that used in US newspapers and many book publishers.
  • There can also be a marked difference between news outlets and book publishers when it comes to using quotation marks themselves. In the body of stories, newsrooms typically use double quotation marks – “ ” – around standard quotes and single quote marks – ‘ ’ – only for quoted words within a larger quote. In headlines, though, news outlets usually opt for single quote marks. Book publishers often employ the opposite style, encasing primary quotes with single quotes and surrounding quotes within quotes with double quotation marks.
  • I’ll stick with the Australian newsroom versions for examples in this posting.

Expressing each form of quoted speech correctly, and consistently, is important because it not only shows that you are a disciplined writer but also because it speeds up the production process if your quotes do not require extra close scrutiny.

Let the quoting begin

Once the identity of a speaker has been clearly established, then quoting can begin in earnest. In many cases, you will find yourself reporting not just one direct quote but a series of sequential sentences.

After setting up the full details of the speaker in a preceding paragraph, you can then go on in the next paragraph to reporting what the speaker said, enclosing the quote in double quotation marks and placing an attribution phrase afterwards.

As in the example above, this attribution phrase should restate the speaker’s honorific (if used) plus the family name of the speaker or the speaker’s title if that is sufficient to clearly identify the speaker. Where it is obvious who is being quoted, the reporter may simply use she said or he said.

Should the reporter need to include additional direct quotes immediately after the first one, the presentation rules change slightly.

As an uninterrupted series of quotes by the same speaker unfolds, there is no longer a need to attribute each sentence.

In fact, to help indicate that it is the same speaker talking, the close quote mark is left off the end of each subsequent sentence until the speaker’s last sentence in the series, which will conclude with a close quotation mark.

It’s a simple but universal method for reporting blocks of quotes that reporters sometimes forget to follow.

Of course, if reporters include blocks of quotes from different speakers, they need to always ensure it is clear to the reader just who is speaking.

And sometimes, in longer features where a speaker is heavily quoted, an occasional he said or she said can be used to help break up a long series of quotes. Better still is using an occasional paragraph of indirect speech to add variety to the copy.

Use colons sparingly with quotes

Dr Granato was also not a big fan of the attribution phrase coming before the quote itself, unless it was deployed to recount a rapid-fire exchange between two speakers, as in a court case.

Example:

At one point the courtroom fell silent as prosecutor Joanne Brown tersely cross-examined the defence’s key witness, builder Seth Grey.
Brown: “Is it true that you were on the work site after hours, Mr Grey?”
Grey: “No, not really.”
Brown: “Yes or no, Mr Grey.”
Grey: “Yes, but we were…”
Brown: “Just answer the question, Mr Grey.”
The witness shifted uncomfortably in his seat before replying through gritted teeth: “We worked past our usual finishing time, yes.”
Brown: “Who else stayed back.”
After a long pause, Grey replied: “We were the only ones.”

Each newsroom or publisher will have a preferred style for inverting attribution and direct quotes. Some outlets prefer commas when placing attribution phrases ahead of full or partial direct quotes, while many others will prefer colons. Always check and observe house style.

Don’t lapse into fiction when writing news

News writing is supposed to be active, so attribution phrases should be constructed with the name first and then the word said, as in Ms Green said, and not said Ms Green, unless the attribution phrase contains a qualifier such as said Ms Green, who was nearby.

Dr Granato was particular about this rule because, he contended, the passive said Ms Green belonged with Briar Rabbit in children’s books.

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If you like what you’ve read here, you can see reporting4work’s similar posts at Style Matters or connect via Facebook by liking the reporting4work Facebook Page 

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