“Quote Unquote”: How Precise Must Our Quotes Be?

Erika.OSU Alumni magazine

Erika on the cover of the January-February 2013 issue of the Ohio State Alumni Magazine.

I’m a proud papa to report that my daughter is pictured on the cover of the current issue of the Ohio State University Alumni Magazine. As the cover blurb describes: “Erika Sulecki benefited from the Success Series [a campus-acclimatization program for new students]; now she helps freshmen find their own footing on the path to the future.”

After the novelty and hoopla of this honor had receded, Erika, who’s a senior at OSU, got around to reading the passage of the story where she’s quoted. Then she texted me:

“Hahaha so [I] just read my quote. Is it frequent for writers to paraphrase what you say and then quote it? I feel like one of them was something I wouldn’t say directly although it[‘]s what I meant”

Ah. That odd feeling of close-but-not-quite-exact-verisimilitude that anyone who has ever been interviewed for print feels. It’s sort of like seeing yourself on video or TV for the first time. Is this what I really look like? Is that what I actually said?

Having been quoted once or twice myself through the years, I responded:

“Yes, isn’t that an odd experience? Writers frequently paraphrase what they remember you saying. Me, I’ve always tried to get the quote as verbatim as possible”

And it’s true. Maybe it’s my persnickety past as an English major studying literature, where dialogue and the way a character says something advance the plot and theme every bit as much if not more than the narrative itself.

Erika replied:

“Haha yeah it was phrased in a way I wouldn’t say it. I mean it’s not bad [‘]cause he got [t]he gist but it was funny”

Yes, the gist — isn’t this really what we journalists are seeking to convey? But note the peculiarities and uniqueness of Erika’s texting which are so unique to Millennials. I’ve quoted her verbatim so that you might get the full “gist” of what she’s communicating.

And isn’t this what we should be doing with the spoken as well as the written word? I.e., quoting verbatim, or awfully close to it? (Taking care not to embarrass, of course.) Cadence, diction, syntax — all are emblematic and representative of the subjects we’re interviewing. Shouldn’t we seek the last full measure of accuracy in representing the thoughts, words and very sound of the people we’re capturing in our content?

The hurly-burly of an interview sometimes precludes such leisure, of course. Sometimes we simply can’t physically pause in the moment to write down precisely what the subject is saying. And God knows that going back and transcribing an interview is a pain.

But in this era of fast-encroaching electronic media, of microphones and “voice memos” right on our iPhones, of nearly omnipresent video cameras on our smartphones, of YouTube for the masses — shouldn’t we at least try? The reward is a print story that can paint in words the completeness of a person as accurately as a still photo or video would.


Clear Writing Vs. Clever Writing: Why Headlines Can Be Descriptive AND Compelling

Image courtesy of Linchpin Bloggers

Image courtesy of Linchpin Bloggers

I have opined on my bearish view of Newsweek’s future as the venerable magazine title muddles its way to an online-only future.

Now from the opposite end of the competitive spectrum comes an insightful Columbia Journalism Review interview with now-retired Time Inc. Editor in Chief John Huey that gives rise to thoughts about the nature of headline writing in the 21st century.

First, kudos to CJR for one of the more clever titles of the year: deciphering the humor behind the headline  “Huey, Luce and the news” requires knowledge of the story’s subject, the founder and the nature of the subject’s long-time employer…and mediocre 1980s pop-rock. The profound and the profane, as it were.

But this is no idle or self-indulgent punning as these five words do indeed capture the very essence of the piece (if only some of the story’s keywords, “Time Inc.” being most notably missing).

And in fact, the best takeaway of the story is found in the author’s description of Huey’s pithy take on writing for SEO:

Master of the homespun maxim (delivered in a wry Southern drawl), Huey famously summed up the recipe for search-friendly headlines: “Clear is the new clever.”

That’s it! “Clear is the new clever.” It’s the enduring phrase many of us have been seeking to get across the idea that the old school of headline writing most of us grew up with — chockful of keywords, information and unambiguous meaning — is the new school of headline writing. “Clear is the new clever.” Just tell it like it is. The readers and the search bots will take over from there.

But here’s the rub: There seems to be a mistaken assumption among many editors that clear writing and clever writing are by their very nature mutually exclusive, that clear writing is for the web and clever writing is for print.

Nothing could be further from the truth. People, we are wordsmiths, for print and for the web. We are paid by society to manipulate Roman letters the way programmers manipulate code and physicists manipulate numbers — in the service of conveying cogent, cohesive truths. That we have the extra challenge of making such truths emotionally compelling and entertaining makes the work all the more enjoyable and our presence as editors all the more valuable.

A long-ago headline has stayed with me for it was clear and clever. Buried in a back page of a major metro newspaper’s sports section, printed in perhaps 18-point type, it captured the tennis-tournament victory and subsequent financial winnings of Ivan Lendl of Czechoslovakia over the American Pat Cash:

Czech Checks
Cash, Cashes

Exquisite. Clear AND clever. I have envisioned many times its author admiring his (or her) miniaturized handiwork the next day in print, savoring the sparse prose that nonetheless captured an event much larger than the headline’s mere 24 characters. S/he had created it, and it was good.