Quotes and Attribution


Good quotes are essential to turning a story from being good to being great. They play an important role in breaking up the journalist’s writing, transitioning from one fact or sub-issue to the next, giving authoritative heft to a story, and conveying the richness of the human experience. Put another way, quotes are useful in both substantive and stylistic ways.

However, quotes are also a representation of the individuals featured in a story. They must thus be conveyed accurately and clearly. This can present a challenge as journalists simply lack the space to fully quote everything their sources said during the course of interviewing several people. And, even if they had the space, fully quoting everyone would surely result in a story that is an incoherent mess.

Quoting sources in a story thus involves a process of selection and placement, and often requires journalists to move between direct quotes and paraphrased statements.

Below are some tips to help you choose who and what to quote, and to successfully employ quoting and attribution styles that are commonly used in U.S. journalism.

Direct Quotes

Direct quotes are statements that reflect the exact words used by the source. They are always placed in between quotation marks to make clear that they are the source’s words, and not the journalist’s.

Direct quotes are most useful for conveying emotions, opinions, and personal experiences. Quoting dry, basic facts (or descriptions that you can easily observe with your own eyes) is generally neither interesting nor a good use of space (as you can typically convey those facts more succinctly yourself). Instead, listen for quotes that tell you how people feel or think about the subject. An ideal quote will exemplify or elaborate upon a fact.

When using direct quotes, it is important that you change things as little as possible. Most interviewees are able to express themselves coherently — especially since many public figures and experts now receive media training — so you typically only have to ’tidy up’ a quote.

Tidying up typically involves largely mechanical tasks like removing ‘ums’ and ’ers’ or correcting a tense (e.g., using “have” when the correct syntax calls for “had”). However, you should never change the meaning of a quote. It is not your job as a journalist to make an interviewee sound “smarter” — nor should you try to make them sound “dumber.” Your job as a journalist is to accurately convey the source’s intended meaning (as best you can).

What journalists can do, however, is patch quotes. Patching allows you to link one sentence from an interview with another sentence from earlier or later on in that interview. This is particularly useful if you have an inexperienced interviewee or a fast thinker who jumps around a lot during an interview. For example, consider the following portion of a hypothetical interview: “Arsenal are one of the most storied clubs in England. I mean, last weekend was a pretty poor showing, but they’re typically quite good. Still, they remain the only English team to complete a top-flight season undefeated. And, they have won 13 top-flight titles, which is pretty darn impressive.”

We could easily patch that interview segment by writing: “Arsenal are one of the most storied clubs in England,” Zamith said. “They remain the only English team to complete a top-flight season undefeated.”

Patching is critical for ensuring good flow for a story, and journalists therefore frequently use that technique. Direct quotes are typically between one and three sentences in length. Unless they are particularly compelling, longer quotes will often slow down a story.

Here are a few other things to keep in mind when quoting a source:

  • Every quote should be clearly attributed so audiences know exactly who said what.

  • When you quote a person for the first time, introduce them. The introduction typically includes the person’s full name and title. For example, in the aforementioned quote, you might write: “said Rodrigo Zamith, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.”

  • With subsequent quotes, use the source’s last name. If there are two sources with the same last name in the story, use their full name.

  • If there are several paragraphs between a source’s previous quote and their next one, remind the audience of the source’s qualifications. For example, you might later write, “said Zamith, the journalism professor.”

  • It is perfectly fine to use the word “said” repeatedly in your story to transition between the quote and the attribution. This is a neutral term that does not ascribe motivations that you cannot ascertain to your source. Most publications will stick to the past tense (as the interview already took place), though “says” is permissible at some outlets.

  • You should typically use the “[NAME] said” construction when quoting sources. However, you may invert this when an explanatory clause (or attribution) is added. Here’s an example of such an inversion: “said Zamith, who has watched nearly every game over the past decade.”

  • Single or multi-sentence quotes are usually given their own paragraph in a story. This helps draw attention to the quote. Partial quotes (i.e., a sentence fragment) or short quotes may be incorporated into a paragraph containing the journalist’s own words.

  • When using multi-sentence quotes, insert the attribution after the first sentence. Do not add it to the very end of a multi-sentence quote.

  • In feature writing, you may break up a single sentence into multiple segments for effect. For example: “Last weekend was a poor showing,” Zamith said, shaking his head. “They’re typically quite good.”

  • In the United States, punctuation (e.g., commas and periods) typically appears within the quotation marks.

Paraphrased Statements

Journalistic stories also make frequent use of paraphrased statements, which are sometimes also called indirect quotes. These refer to statements attributed to a source that are conveyed through the journalist’s choice of words.

For example, rather dedicating space to an extended quote, you might simply write: According to Zamith, Arsenal have won 13 top-flight titles in England.

Paraphrased statements are important for adding authority and connective tissue to a story. They allow you to attribute a range of information — which adds heft to your story by highlighting that the information is not just your opinion or feeling — and make it easier to introduce transitions to the story by interchanging your words with those of your sources. They are also useful when a source clearly intends to express a specific idea but does so in a clumsy way. In such an instance, you are not simply helping the source look “smarter”; you are helping the audience more easily understand the point.

Paraphrased statements are particularly useful for conveying purely factual information since facts, in isolation, are typically not very exciting and can be conveyed succinctly. If there’s nothing unusual, interesting, or newsworthy about the exact wording of a statement, it is typically better expressed via paraphrasing.

For example, consider the following quote: “The new Journalism building will house eight lab spaces and two lecture halls,” Zamith said. “These classrooms will offer seating capacity for 480 students. It will open next fall.”

There is nothing particularly interesting about that expression. Instead, it would be better to paraphrase it as: Zamith said the new building, due to open next fall, will seat up to 480 students across eight lab spaces and two lecture halls.

Because the journalist has greater control over the word choice of a paraphrased statement, it is even more crucial that they take care to accurately capture the source’s meaning and intent. For example, a source may intentionally use the word “good” to refer to an above-average instance of something. By using the word “great” or “outstanding” in the paraphrasing, the journalist may end up conveying a greater sense of pleasure than the source actually feels. It is thus wise to stick closely to the source’s language, even when paraphrasing.

Similarly, journalists should be careful with the attribution terms they use. For example, the word “claims” can raise undue skepticism about a statement. Instead, it is best to use the following neutral descriptors: “said,” “stated,” “according to,” and “added.”

The LQTQ Format

One structural approach to newswriting that highlights the value of quotes is the LQTQ Format, with the acronym standing for Lead-Quote-Transition-Quote.

The approach begins with a strong lead (e.g., an anecdotal lead or a summary lead) that conveys the essence of the story or hooks audiences in.

Then, in the second full paragraph, important information not found in the lead is offered to help further contextualize the story (i.e., the nut graf). This second paragraph ends with a transition or set-up for the first extended quote in the story.

The third paragraph consists of a direct quote that helps to illustrate or elaborate upon the information provided in that second paragraph. As this is the generally the first direct quote, it typically includes complete attribution information for the source.

Subsequent paragraphs follow the Transition-Quote model. For example, the fourth and fifth paragraphs become linked thusly: The fourth paragraph introduces the next major fact or important piece of information, all the while transitioning the previous direct quote to the next direct quote — which comprises the fifth paragraph. That subsequent quote should elaborate on the transition, offer an expert opinion, or illustrate the issue via an individual’s experience or emotion. Transitions may include paraphrased statements (by the same source or a different one), original facts uncovered by the journalist, or contextual information.

A transition does not have to be a single paragraph in length; it can cover two and even three paragraphs. The idea is that direct quotes are appearing frequently in the story, ensuring that audiences are able to regularly hear from someone other than the journalist.

This process continues until the end, with the story concluding with a kicker quote that aptly encapsulates the story, points to what is to come, or otherwise leaves the audience with a satisfying conclusion. (Don’t just summarize the story in the concluding paragraph. Your audience will have just consumed the story, so they don’t need to be reminded of it. Try to end it with something interesting instead.)

Choosing Who and What to Quote

Journalists will frequently speak with far more sources than they end up quoting or paraphrasing. Put another way, it is perfectly fine to speak with a source and not quote them in the story. If another source is able to express something in a more informative or compelling way, refer only to that other source. (However, it can be helpful to include multiple sources to illustrate that a particular opinion or belief is shared.) Similarly, if your source says something that is inaccurate or offensive, you can choose to omit that information or exclude the source altogether (so as to not misinform your audience). In short, be selective with what and who you quote.

You should also be mindful of the source’s authoritativeness on a particular subject matter. For example, a quote from a company’s CEO will typically carry more weight than a quote from that company’s media spokesperson. (Keep in mind, though, that many quotes in press releases are effectively written by spokespeople.) In general, you should seek to attribute information to the most authoritative sources you were able to interview.

Moreover, if your story angle changes over the course of reporting it, you should simply drop the now-superfluous material. While quotes can be highly useful, they can also be detrimental when used improperly (or overused). There are better uses for space than a tangential quote. (Journalists are often temped to include a particularly juicy quote in a story even though there’s no apparent place for it. Resist that temptation and keep your story focused.)

Finally, as a rule of thumb, journalists should paraphrase dry facts, but directly quote emotions, opinions, and newsworthy expressions voiced by sources. As suggested by the LQTQ Format, direct quotes should be placed throughout the story — generally, at least after every few paragraphs — regardless of the story structure.