Topic: Copywriting

Using Quotations Without A Direct Quote

Posted by obsidianwc on 250 Points
My client is a non profit that serves asylum seekers. I'm writing the client's print and website content.

The content includes testimonials and stories from the asylum seekers whom my client has served. Although I have terrific info from my interviews with them, I don't have enough direct quotes. To some extent, that problem is because English is not their first language.

Is it acceptable to tell their stories, using the first person voice and quotation marks, even if the statements are not direct quotes, but, rather, my telling of their story?

For instance, one of he asylum seekers told me how he managed to escape authorities. I summarized his story this way:

"I was supposed to die. The officer told me to run, so I sprinted, hoping to outrun a bullet that never came.
My friend had bribed the officer to let me go. That bribe was my last chance at survival. I had no choice but to flee my homeland."—H.

My goal is not to embellish or over-dramatize, and I definitely do not want to misrepresent. Instead, I want to tell their stories in the strongest voice possible on behalf of them and my client. Given that brochures and websites have limited space, condensing statements and stories into something a bit more polished seems like the best way to do that.

Wording these testimonials in the 3rd person, weakens their stories.

I'm reading Ann Handley's book "Everybody Writes" where she cautions us to write with integrity and with a journalist's principles. (I spent a few years reporting too, so that advice certainly resonated).

I'm delivering the asylum seekers' stories authentically, but is that enough to use quotation marks when these are not direct quotes?

How much leeway do content writers have in this regard?

If I was just helping to sell vacuums, this might not be so difficult, but these stories are nuanced and traumatic. To give a word or two only just because those two words were directly quotable seems to also be an injustice to their life and work.

In addition, time is an issue. I considered calling each of them and asking them to approve my re-wording of their words, but that process could take more hours than I have to offer.
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  • Posted by mgoodman on Accepted
    My solution to your dilemma would be to go ahead and use the first-person narration and disclose that the actual voice has been translated and otherwise edited for clarity and efficiency. (You can do this in an author's footnote or as part of the text itself.) This way you are covered should anyone challenge you.
  • Posted by dubois on Accepted
    Your journalistic instinct is correct: you can't write quotes for people. It's unfortunate, but your best ethical hope would be to get them to agree that the statements are theirs.

    "This is how I remember/summarized your story." And with ESL, you should make it extra clear that the quotes imply direct quotation.

    Third person can be gripping, too. You can preface it all with a "names have been changed" disclosure.

    "Hoko was supposed to die that morning. The armed officer told him to run..."
  • Posted by Gary Bloomer on Accepted
    Carry on doing what you're doing.

    You're telling people's stories and that is all that matters.

    One style note to clarify that these are not direct quotes is to place all the text from the PoV of an interviewee in Italics.

    This then removes the need for quotations marks while retaining the distinction.
  • Posted by Gary Bloomer on Accepted
    To my ear, it sounds that what you're doing is 100% on point.
  • Posted by obsidianwc on Author
    I'm not ready to close this discussion yet, but I am grateful to all of you who have responded so far. Many, many thanks.
  • Posted by Jay Hamilton-Roth on Accepted
  • Posted by obsidianwc on Author
    Thanks to each of you for your thoughtful responses.

    After doing some of my own research, following up on your suggestions and links, and reviewing my interview notes, I decided to maintain the first person POV and, per mgoodman's suggestion, add a footnote stating "Client statements have been edited for clarity and efficiency."

    I had a lot of reasons to go this route, but I figured I'd save space here. If anyone is interested, I'm happy to expound offline.

    Again, grateful for the professional feedback--a one woman consulting operation can sometimes be a mind-numbing echo-chamber.
  • Posted by Mark on Member
    I was invited to answer this question but its not ethical to miss quote or procure details, though I see you have had ample good advice so, good luck with your project.

  • Posted by obsidianwc on Author
    Thanks Mark. Yes, I agree.

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