Copy-editing with a twist

The ins and outs of being a copy editor

When the ‘A’ in Q&A is a big mess

Posted by Noel Sanchez on October 7, 2008

I talk a lot about writing the way you speak, but what about speaking the way you write?

I’m not a fan of stories in Q&A format. When they’re done right, I enjoy reading them, but they can be cumbersome to edit. You can only really edit the source’s answers for spelling and punctuation, and you can’t do much about style. Q&A only works when you have a really eloquent source who speaks in complete sentences and stays on topic.

Interviewing a TV news anchor or professional public speaker might elicit really clear utterances, but I can’t think of many more people whose interviews would be coherent if transcribed directly. The problem is that speech doesn’t translate well onto paper. People repeat themselves. They start a sentence one way and trail off without finishing. They twist around their sentences into passive voice, and they don’t honor subject-verb agreement.

Slate has an article about trying to diagram Sarah Palin’s sentences from her recent interviews with Katie Couric and Charlie Gibson.

While the article acknowledges that diagramming is normally reserved for the written word, it criticizes Palin’s incoherent ramblings and asks whether we should hold our politicians, who are used to having to think (and speak) on their feet, to a higher standard.

And it’s true. Palin’s spoken ramblings were already difficult to understand. Reading a transcription or trying to diagram her sentences is nearly impossible. And yet, I encounter Q&A stories that ramble on like this all the time. Writing a traditional story and picking a few choice quotes that get the source’s point across well would do these stories much more justice.

Let’s just be thankful that Katie Couric’s interviews don’t get transcribed directly into a print story.


3 Responses to “When the ‘A’ in Q&A is a big mess”

  1. Tiffany Morgan said

    1.) I have to say I dig your title here.
    2.) I can agree with you on a few points here and disagree on a few others.

    I totally agree that it is irrefutably important for people to have at least basic knowledge of written grammar. It’s really judgmental of me, and kind of embarassing, but I have little respect for people who don’t know the difference between “its” and “it’s,” “your” and “you’re,” and especially “there,” “their” and “they’re.” And that’s just the beginning. However, I tend to give people a break when it comes to everyday speech. We live in a society where, in some contexts, differences in speech patterns make us who we are. My dad just wouldn’t be his South Georgian self if he didn’t pronounce “theater” as “thee-ay-ter” and always used “hisself” in place of “himself” when talking. Yet, being the college-educated man that he is, he certainly makes certain to use the correct word when writing.

    I do agree, however, that public leaders should be held to at least a slightly higher speaking standard.

    It would be really awesome if your next blog were on the inexplicable inability for our generation to correctly spell “definitely.” It’s like this: They can pretty much all spell “definite,” but once they need to tack on an “-ly” it becomes too confusing. My favorite versions:


    P.S. I warrant no claims on errors contained within this comment. I’m Tiffany Morgan, and I approved this message. 🙂

  2. maccam said

    I agree that Q&A stories can be a jumble of sentences and annoying to edit, but I think people like them because they are unfiltered. It’s hard to edit them because you don’t want to take the speaker’s style or personality out of the story.

  3. Maggie said

    I believe that a politician should be held at the highest standard of language usage because his or her public addresses are the only medium constituents have to go on in determining what kind of person he or she is. Any written materials are probably drafted by someone else, and although a speech will probably be another’s work as well, at least in speaking publicly at a debate or in an interview, a politician is working from his or her own mental capacity, is “on the spot,” if you will, which is what being a leader is all about. Language reflects intelligence, which reflects understanding, which reflects ability. Some may call it nitpicky, but I cannot respect a person who uses a word in a public forum without first consulting its definition.

    Here’s a link for you to a NYT editorial on Palin’s language:

    The best part here is Dowd’s pointing out that Palin uses “maverick” incorrectly, and exhaustively, at that. A maverick cannot be self-proclaimed and cannot work in groups because, by definition, a maverick is always independent of a group. Anyone who considers his or herself part of a party, which I assume McCain and Palin do (What’s it called…the Redumblican Party?), CANNOT be a maverick. *booh booh* *wink*

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