Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Rewriting You 2: Unquote

There are two epochs in my career as a writer of newspaper stories: before I was provided a voice recorder and after. In the earlier era, which coincides with my newspaper career in Missouri, when I interviewed someone or attended a meeting, I had to write down as much of what they said as possible, as fast as possible. I tended to skip anything that wasn't interesting or to the point. I only wrote down "word for word" things that sounded really quotable; everything else was bullet points. Sometimes I asked the subject to repeat themselves or to wait while I caught up. Quotes based on my notes tended to be the best version of what the speaker said.

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera
In these latter (Minnesota based) days, I often go back to the recording and type up a transcript before writing a story based on my notes, which now increasingly consist of time indexes for the juicy bits. The difference is huge. Part of the difference is the amount of verbal packing material I have to throw away. It took hearing the recording again, and having to type and re-read a transcript of it, to bring home to me just how much of the average person's speech is made up of unnecessary vocalization. I'm not pointing fingers at others; this applies to me, too. If anything, I find my voice more tedious to listen to on tape than most people's, full of hesitations, unfortunate interruptions and badly scripted dialogue. On the upside, I don't usually have to rewrite my painfully awkward remarks; instead, I get to edit myself out of the story entirely.

I am blessed to be under the supervision of a newspaper editor who is OK with verbal crud being edited out of quotes. She disapproves of ellipses (when snipping surplus verbiage) and parentheses inside of quotes (when replacing verbal mistakes and unclear references with what the speaker obviously meant), preferring to quote the speaker in the most on-point manner possible. Meantime, I am becoming adept at seeking out and destroying words and phrases that add nothing to a quotable quote. Some examples follow; it's not an exhaustive list.

Just: I had a 10th-grade social studies teacher who banned this word from his classroom, reasoning that its use implied an attempt to make excuses instead of taking responsibility. It's also a word that many people have noticed being overused and abused in public prayers and invocations, to the effect, "Gee, God, we're JUST asking for one thing, and then another thing, and then another..." Maybe I shouldn't be surprised to find that a lot of people just pepper their talk with the word "just" for no particular reason. It's just a verbal space-holder. It just doesn't mean anything. After a while, it just starts to just drive me crazy.

Kind of/kinda: This is another verbal spacer that kinda drives the grammar freak in me kind of crazy. My conscience kind of pricks me about letting a two-word phrase, ending in a preposition, kinda stand in place of an adverb. My spellchecker goes kinda nuts when I try to replace it with a one-word coinage, or a kind of contraction, that isn't recognized by the dictionary. But it's kinda deletable, because after you hear or read it repeated in sentence after sentence, you kind of realize it adds zero meaning to what the speaker is saying.

You know: I think this was the phrase that sank Caroline Kennedy's hopes for a big-time political career, when her side of a televised interview was embarrassingly bogged down in repetitions of what seemed, in the last analysis, to mean "duuhhhhh..." Similar substitutes for "um" or "er" include like, OK, yeah, so, and so, now and I mean. Even very bright people can provoke snickering or eye-rolling when you notice that their every statement begins with "So,..." I once had to advise a preacher, by way of a confession of sin, that I couldn't help counting the number of times he said "And so" in each sermon and that the game was distracting me from his message. As for the conversational gambit of opening with "Yeah," whether the statement that follows is agreeing or disagreeing with what was said before? Please! Stop trying to remind me of Phoebe on Friends!

Well: This sentence-starter sometimes stays in the story for rhetorical effect, or because it conveys a sense of attitude. But some people salt and pepper their speech with it so liberally that you could search for it and replace it with nothing, without any net loss. Interestingly, but not very interestingly, a lot of instances of this sweet nothing introduce "inside quotes" citing the thoughts of a hypothetical person. For example, "Someone will probably read this and go, 'Well, that's completely pointless.'"

Needless amplification: There are several different words and phrases that fall into this category, and each individual picks one or a few and repeats it (them) a lot. Some examples are really, pretty much, actually, basically, essentially, probably and all of a sudden. Taken one occurrence at a time, they seem to function as adverbs and even seem to add pizzazz to the quote. In a voice-recording transcript where they are repeated again and again, they are revealed all of a sudden as really, pretty much basically meaningless.

Etc., etc., etc.: Yul Brynner, in The King and I, raised the noncomittal sentence ender to an art form. Many people today practice this art on an instinctive level, but with a less culturally enriching effect. Frequently heard substitutes for "and so on, and so forth" that I have heard people tack on the end of sentences, repeatedly and without any real meaning, include and all that, and stuff like that and, in the case of an elderly Missouri farmer I interviewed last year, something like as far as that as may be - which he repeated compulsively at the end of every thought, sometimes multiple times in a single sentence. My conscience troubled me not at all when I ignored this polysyllabic tic when I quoted him in my story.

Unnecessary time markers: Some people's vocal tic is to stick words and phrases like "Then" or "After that" into two out of five sentences. I'm guessing they don't notice they're doing this, and if that's the case, they also won't notice if I skip those words except where a precise sequence of events is crucial to the story.

Yep, yeah, uh-huh: When the response to a question is a simple affirmative, I tend to recast the question as a declarative sentence and make it an indirect quote, like "The mama bear confirmed someone had been eating her porridge." This saves me having to introduce her answer with something like, "Asked whether..." Sometimes the affirmative is more specific or personally engaging, like exactly, precisely, correct or absolutely; but after the speaker gives the same response seven or eight times in one interview, the sense of originality fades.

I recently had an opportunity to read the full mansucript of a recorded police interview with a murder suspect. It was an excruciating ordeal, full of apparent interruptions and tragically placed instances of the tag [inaudible]. Compared to a brief extract of another interview that had to be based on handwritten notes, because the entire sound recording turned out to be unusable, it left a poor impression of the average person's ability to improvise snappy, plot-forward dialogue. It was due to this assignment (which ultimately didn't result in a newspaper story) that I posted the following status on Facebook: "Reading transcript of a police interrogation. Urk. THIS is why script writers make the bucks." And then I commented on my own status: "A thousand times, Urk."

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