Attribution

Use it.

You may be plenty smart, but readers don’t care what you think. They want to know what people who are expert – or at least involved – in an issue think. So find out. You’re a reporter not some shoot from the hip blogger. So report what you find out and tell them who told you.

Place it correctly

Use it as soon as you can – right after the first sentence of quote. Example:

“Why not just keep using fossil fuels? Coal and natural gas are going to be a part of this. Fossil fuels are still going to be a large part of the equation,” Liu said.

Note where this attribution is placed. Readers have to wade through three sentences before they find out that it is Liu who is speaking. Why make them guess? Tell them immediately – right after that first sentence.

Avoid the hurdles

While varying where you place attribution can improve readability, long attribution should never come at the beginning of the sentence. In that position it is a roadblock readers must hurdle to get to the interesting stuff. Consider:

Bedrock Water Buffalo Association Grand Pooh-bah Fred Flintstone said, “Barney is a jerk.”

The reader is forced to hurdle nine words of attribution to get to that pithy and interesting sentence. Now consider:

“Barney is a jerk,” said Fred Flintstone, the grand pooh-bah of the Bedrock Water Buffalo Association.

The reader’s mind can just sort of glide over that lengthy attribution at the end without articulating it even subconsciously. And the reader is immediately rewarded with that compellingly short sentence.

Capitalize correctly

Note also that the job title is capitalized when it comes before Fred’s name. It is lower case when it comes after his name. Learn this. It’s easy. And when you don’t do stuff like this, it looks bush league. You’re a professional.

Noun-verb – usually

The default order for attribution is simple sentence structure with the noun followed by the verb: “Writing is hard,” Jones said.

But you need to reverse the order when you want to incorporate additional identifying information into the attribution: “Writing is hard,” said Jones, who teaches creative writing at Munster Community College.

Quoting from press releases

Don’t. Why should you quote a press release? Readers can read those themselves. Be a reporter – get something from the horse’s mouth yourself.

If you absolutely have no choice and must attribute information from a press release, make sure that context is clear. Don’t try to trick readers into thinking you actually interviewed someone. Be honest. But avoid this construction:

More than 90 percent of students met state standards, said Bob Jones, the principal of Carver High School, in a press release.

And use a construction that keeps the verb next to the context:

More than 90 percent of students met state standards, Bob Jones, the principal of Carver High School, said in a press release.

–David Poulson, associate director, Knight Center for Envrionmental Journalism–