10 attributes of professional writers -- #10: Ask for permission to quote

It’s always a good idea to ask permission to quote someone, especially if you’re (slightly) putting words into their mouths. “How might that arise?”, you might ask.

Always seek permission to quote someone.By and large, people don’t speak in very quotable ways, unless they’re used to being in the media spotlight, like politicians. What that means is that, as a journalist, you will often have to invent quotes on their behalf. If you do that well, they will likely say something like, “Wow, I wish I’d said that!” – to which the answer is, of course, “Well you just did!”.

There are two reasons to ask permission to quote. First, if they didn’t actually say those exact words, strictly speaking you can’t quote something they haven’t said because that is to enter the realm of fiction writing. Second, they may have had time to think about it, and would prefer to have said something slightly different.

The best time to ask permission to quote is when you are actually speaking to them. I always say something along the lines of, “So is it OK if I quote you as saying …?”. I like to put this in an email so that they can see what it looks like “in print” and either amend it or give you permission in a return email.

If permission is withheld, or you don’t have time to seek their permission to quote, you can always attribute the quote to a “source”, as long as you don’t make it obvious –  to anyone in the know – who you’ve been talking to. For example, in a newsletter article recently, I wrote:

This is certainly the impression I have come away with having spoken to certain people.

The people I spoke to are very much “in the know”, but probably would not have wished to be quoted, and I felt that if I had asked that would have marked me down as being somewhat naive. The truth of the matter is that people in the know stay in the know because they are discreet and don’t go telling the world what they know or how they know it. A good journalist will understand that, and act accordingly.

In the final analysis, people are much less likely to be upset if they are either not quoted or have their views anonymised than if they see their name attached to something they either didn’t say at all, of which they’d said off the record. As in most areas in life, erring on the side of caution is usually the safer option.

That brings this series to a close. To read the other attributes of professional writers, click on the tag 10 attributes of professional writers.