Coming clean on quotes: How much can you edit?
Published: January 22, 2002
How much can you tidy up what someone tells you?|
You can quote me, freelance writer Jim Edwards says over the phone from Jersey City, N.J. He has only one request: Please don't use the name of the nationally recognized business magazine where he learned that some writers and editors regard quotation marks around spoken words as malleable starting points, and not as "No Trespassing" signs.
Edwards had both writing and editing responsibilities at the magazine. One day, an article he wrote was edited by another department--and came back with verbatim quotes reworded to the point that their meanings were altered. "That's when it became clear there were two different systems in the same magazine," says Edwards, who also was senior writer at the media watchdog magazine Brill's Content until it folded last year. "My policy was not to change quotes at all, so my stories, and the stories that came through me, had lots of ellipses and brackets and paraphrasing. On the other side of the magazine, their style was to neaten it up, to do anything to keep the narrative flow."
While it surely is rare that a magazine would tolerate two policies on cleaning up quotes, the publication's schizophrenia neatly illustrates the confusion and division this subject engenders among writers of all types of nonfiction. Writers seek quotes that soar and sing, that punctuate their prose like a fat piano chord landing in perfect sync with the rhythm of a jazz combo's bass and drum. And what do their interview subjects offer instead? Stuttered, stumbling sentences that wander around in search of a verb and skitter off in a dozen directions.
|By nature, we humans are maddeningly discursive. We ruin even our best quotes. Everyone of a certain age, for instance, recalls former White House counsel John Dean's stirring warning about Watergate to President Nixon in the Oval Office on March 21, 1973: "There's a cancer on the presidency." But Dean's actual comment was caught on tape and transcribed, and here is what he really said: "We have a cancer within, close to the presidency, that is growing. It is growing daily. It's compounded, growing geometrically now, because it compounds itself. That will be clear if I, you know, explain some of the details of why it is." Somehow the real quotation doesn't have the ring of, you know, history about it.|
Faced with inconveniently rambling remarks, many writers routinely preserve the quotation marks but change some of the words they attribute to speakers. As Edwards discovered, some publications encourage writers to "clean up" quotes with a power hose. Pick any page in a supermarket tabloid and the person quoted inevitably sounds like, well, a supermarket tabloid writer. The National Enquirer quotes "a friend" as saying about actress Gwyneth Paltrow: "Gwyneth has truly hit on Mr. Right with Mr. Wilson ... . She's confided her altar ambitions with Luke to former lover and close friend Ben Affleck." Does anyone talk like that? And how is it that so many people quoted in The New Yorker appear to speak with an impeccable syntax straight out of the pages of H.W. Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage?
How ethical is all of this? Interestingly, most news organizations strictly forbid "cleaning up" quotes, yet journalists are the most frequent offenders--and defenders--of the practice. The Associated Press Stylebook, followed by most American newspapers and many magazines, is unforgiving on the subject: "Never alter quotations even to correct minor grammatical errors or word usage." At the same time, the AP Stylebook also advises against using fragmentary quotes or ellipses. So what's a writer gonna do? (AP, incidentally, specifically abjures the routine use of "abnormal spellings such as gonna.")
Many journalists draw their own line. Steve Doig was an investigative reporter at The Miami Herald for 20 years before he became a professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University. "I tell my students: Quote a person as you hear them. What you learn to do as a reporter is filter out all those false starts and the oh's and um's and all the other things, and write what people are saying with all the noise filtered out," Doig says. "The point of journalism, of nonfiction in general, is to communicate ideas to readers. If they have to plow their way through the circumlocutions and rhetorical figures and asides ... it would be very hard, stultifying and boring reading."
Last winter, M.L. "Mike" Stein taught a course at the University of California, Irvine with the same title as his latest book, co-authored by Susan F. Paterno: Talk Straight, Listen Carefully: The Art of Interviewing (Iowa State University Press). "You don't change the meaning of what an individual says. That is taboo," says Stein, the author of 17 books and a frequent travel writer. "But in my writing, I have no hesitation about straightening out syntax, as long as I do not change the essence of the quote, or alter the image or character of the person you are interviewing."
Other writers do have hesitations, sometimes paralyzing ones. While he was working on a book that re-examines the Columbine High School shootings, Dave Cullen, a regular contributor to Salon.com, agonized over how to handle the quotations from the many explosive interviews he conducted. "At first, I was afraid to take out even the um's," he says. "And then I wouldn't take anything out of order, or take out a stray thinking-out-loud phrase in the middle of a sentence."
Like a surprising number of writers, Cullen confesses to the fear that one day, something will happen that will subject all his nonfiction work to a merciless public scrutiny. It's not an entirely irrational apprehension. Consider what happened to well-known--and now former--Boston Globe columnists Mike Barnicle and Patricia Smith. In each case, an initial question about a particular column ended up revealing multiple instances of apparent fabrication and plagiarism. Then, too, there was the celebrated and costly libel suit that psychologist Jeffrey Masson launched against author Janet Malcolm and The New Yorker over allegedly fabricated quotes. (A federal jury ultimately found in Malcolm's favor.)
These authorial versions of the death penalty keep him on the straight and narrow, freelance writer Edwards says. This is his nightmare scenario: "Imagine a story of yours becomes the subject of a libel suit that goes to a jury trial. The plaintiff's lawyer demands to hear your tape-recorded interviews and reveals that the quotes in the allegedly libelous story are actually different to [sic] the ones that appeared in print because you were tidying things up. A jury of ordinary people would rightly regard this practice as suspicious and bizarre, and might consider it evidence of your malice or recklessness toward the reputation of the plaintiff. They certainly wouldn't see it as part of your commitment to accuracy."
Cloud Over Columbine author Cullen eventually got over his fear of cleaning up quotes. It was his editor that put him straight, he says: "My editor made the point that books are typically different." More important than a quote that is as accurate as a court transcript is the larger truth of the story or style of the person quoted, Cullen concluded. "And the requirement for a narrative flow is much stronger," he says. "So now I think you want to get to the gist of [a rambling quote], and discard the useless parts. The main concern is that you are being 100 percent ethical about not distorting what they are saying. You are clarifying rather than changing."
Illustration by Kellie Jaeger