As an editor, one of the first pieces of feedback I give to writers is to vary word choice and sentence structure. But there’s one place where I go in the complete opposite direction: quote attribution.
When I started managing a local alt-weekly five years ago, I inherited their style guide. I could change it, but I decided to give it a little test drive first.
A simple “subject says” is the best format for quote attribution
That style guide recommended that writers almost exclusively use a simple “subject says” format to attribute quotes. I bristled a little. Taking all the wonderful varied ways to frame a quote and jettisoning them in favor of “says” felt wrong, sparse and cold.
But as I worked with more and more writers, I converted to the “subject says” formula. It strengthened pieces in a few ways, and I’ve carried this framework into other work. This advice is drawn from non-fiction and journalistic style writing, but you could also apply this approach to fiction if it suits your voice.
If you’re unsure about fully converting to a “subject says” formulation, here are two ways it could help strengthen your writing.
Figure out who the focus of your piece is
When introducing a quote from a source, you’ll include some context around who’s speaking.
Sometimes it’s more basic, such as the source’s occupation and expertise in an area. If the interview was held in a location that highlights your subject’s relevance to the subject, that could make its way in as well.
It makes a difference if the mayor is making a statement outside City Hall, or an offhand comment to a writer who’s followed them along to their kid’s soccer game. If you’re writing about someone who champions minimalism and they’re sitting behind a desk covered in post-it notes and stacks of books, that’s information your readers could find interesting.
This context helps, but remember that you’ve included your source in the piece for a reason. They offer credibility, or an insight, or an experience that is unique, and their voice matters. The context surrounding a quote shouldn’t overshadow the quote itself.
Your goal should be to showcase your source, not your writing. And overly flowery quote attributions can subtly (and not-so-subtly) pull focus away from the quotes – and away from the source – toward the writer.
The beauty of sticking with “says” is from a reader’s perspective, it doesn’t jump out. It does its work quietly, lets the reader know who’s speaking and then leaves them to continue on with the piece.
Not every word or turn of phrase needs to showcase the craft of the writer. A habit of “says” relieves your quote attributions of the pressure of communicating more than they have to. It makes space for your quotes to stand out. It keeps the focus on the source, not the framing of their quote.
Are there exceptions to this? Of course! Context is important for framing a quote, and unless you’ve interviewed someone who’s very tight-lipped, you’ll likely end up with more usable quotes than you have room for in your word count.
Sometimes selecting the best section of the quote means losing part of the context. Quote attributions can put this context back in concisely while keeping an otherwise low profile.
Examples of these include:
Other attributions might seem to add something, but often don’t say much more than “says,” including:
If you’re unsure, ask yourself: would the meaning of the quote be lost if the attribution was changed to “says”? If not, stick with “says.” Sometimes less is more.
Link the subject to the quote
Another trick to keep your attributions clean and clear is to use the “subject says” order rather than “says subject.” The closer the source’s name is to their quote, the less work there is for the reader to connect the two.
Consider our hypothetical minimalism expert from earlier – let’s call her Linda Lesser – and some possible options to frame a quote of hers. None of these frameworks are necessarily wrong, but while reading these over, consider how many elements of the story you’re mentally keeping track of while finding your way through the sentence.
Linda Lesser, a self-styled consultant in minimalist approaches to work spaces, says that “A clean desk is like a clean slate, and can reduce potential distractions.”
Consider the distance there between Lesser and her quote, and if her qualifications add much in the preface.
“A clean desk is like a clean slate, and can reduce potential distractions,” says self-styled consultant in minimalist work spaces Linda Lesser.
This puts the quote up front and is more engaging, but there’s still a gap between quote and attribution.
“A clean desk is like a clean slate, and can reduce potential distractions,” Linda Lesser, a self-styled consultant in minimalist work spaces, says.
This is my preference for combining a quote with context, as we’ve linked the words directly to Linda, and then add context after. The reader doesn’t need to keep track of too much. And even simpler yet:
“A clean desk is like a clean slate, and can reduce potential distractions,” Linda Lesser says. She’s a self-styled consultant in minimalist work spaces, and…
The quote is linked to the source, and then we move on to more about Lesser. Her qualifications act as a transition from the quote, so another interesting fact could be added in afterward without bogging the sentence down.
It’s essential to vary sentence structure somewhat, but consider how many elements you’re asking your reader to carry along the way.
A source adds a new voice to the piece. A simple quote attribution can help readers keep track of the action without getting too distracted.
How do you attribute quotes in your writing? Let us know in the comments below.
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