To Show or Not to Show Your Quotes

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Hey Everyone,

Many of you are already familiar with my "Questions & Quandaries" column in the print version of Writer's Digest, but now I'm entering the blogosphere--that's right, they're crazy enough to have me blogging. Of course, I tried negotiating for a fancier office, a nicer parking spot and 3 free breakfasts a week, but they countered with, well, nothing, so I settled for having my mug at the top.

I'm hoping most of you are as excited about this as I am, as each week I'll try to give you insight into some of your grammatical, ethical and business-oriented questions. Ask me anything you want ( writersdigest@fwpubs.com ) and I'll do my best to answer as many as I can. So kick off your shoes, get comfortable and get ready to learn all the writing secrets you've always wanted to know. -- BAK

Q: Recently, a source for an article that I wrote asked if she could read it before I submitted it. I said no. She insisted it was her right to read any direct quotes I'd attributed to her before submitting the article. After the article was published, she was displeased that the editor had cut out some of what she considered “important information.” Did I do the right thing?—Meg Charendoff

A: Like any true ethical dilemma, there are no clear-cut rules on this subject. Some writers have no reservations about showing quotes to their interview subjects, while others think it’s one of journalism’s 10 mortal sins (somewhere between plagiarism and writing in passive voice). After all, once it’s been said, it’s fair game.

“Generally, newspaper reporters don’t allow interviewees to look over quotations and turn down requests when a source asks,” says Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University. The reason behind this is that you’re catching open and honest responses the first time around; any revisions will only allow for sources to replace honest answers with lifeless rhetoric.

Freelancers working on investigative pieces, on the other hand, tend to take a slightly softer approach, says Bugeja. “Magazine writers usually have to provide a fact-check for their quotations, and so they send the transcript of the interview back for clarification.” If you decide to go this route, it’s important to preface the fact-check with this statement: Please correct any errors of omission or fact only. In fact, highlight it, underline it, send an e-card repeating it. If you don’t stress that you’re strictly looking for factual errors, you allow them to change everything. And, as any editor knows, if you give someone a chance to edit themselves, they will.

Some magazines have their own rules, so you may want to check with the one signing your paycheck. Writer’s Digest’s policy is clear: No revisiting quotes. If I’m working on a feature and unsure about a quote or particular fact, I’ll call with a follow-up question to clarify, possibly getting a new quote all together. If the interviewee wants to see his quotes, I politely say, “While I can’t share the interview transcript, I’d be happy to talk again, and allow you to add or clarify anything you want.”

The truth is, it’s completely up to you and rests solely on what you feel comfortable doing. If you want to show the quotes, show them. If you don’t, don’t. The key to remember, though, is this: You don’t have to show quotes to any of your interviewees. As long you’re willing to stand behind it, there’s no need to let them revisit their words. They said them. You heard them. Case closed.

And, if you want to avoid this all together, just record your interviews. If you have it on tape, there’s no dispute.

Take care of yourself and your writing,
Brian A. Klems