Do you pepper your stories with attribution?

Human interest stories, especially profiles, can easily get bogged down by too many he saids and she saids. One of the simplest ways to tighten your writing is to watch your use of attribution, especially in profiles (as in the case below). As with any writing, use your instincts when it comes to attribution. Is it always necessary? 

In the profile below, we can avoid use of attribution in numerous places in the story because:

  • The person is telling us about their life . . . therefore the source is credible (this doesn't mean you should always believe whatever someone tells you. If something sounds suspicious or far-fetched then, of course, check it out). 
  • The person isn't stating opinions or making statements about other people that need to be sourced.
  • The person isn't saying anything that is controversial. 
  • All the information is firsthand.
  • There are no red flags concerning accuracy or origin of the information.

As a reporter, you don't need a zillion he saids/she saids to tie the information to the person in order to protect your butt.

Eliminating he said, she said: An exercise

For the purpose of this exercise, the story below is filled with examples of attribution . . . a lot of attribution.

Read the following story and decide: How many she saids can you eliminate? Interestingly, in eliminating many she saids, you'll find that the sentence can continue as is, and be perfectly fine. Just a whole lot tighter. And a lot less said.

In her final year at college, Smith said she began studying Johnson's life. She said at the time, it was a big transition period for herself. Soon, she would make the move from student to "real world."

"I always planned to write a book, but I started to wonder if I would ever actually do it," Smith said. "At the beginning, I just sat down and started jotting down thoughts on paper. Every day I would write a few more chapters."

Still, she said she wasn’t sure she could finish the book. Long hours and sleepless nights -- her mind racing with novel ideas -- began to take a toll. She said it would be months before she learned to pace her writing.

She said the process taught her patience.

"You can't finish writing a book in two weeks. That's something I finally started to realize. It can take years for some writers to finish their novels."

After graduation, she said she took three months off before starting a full-time job at a casino. The extra time helped her complete the writing. She said she would write "in the morning, during lunch and at night."

Eight months later, she said the novel was finished and sent to a publishing company.

In April, she said 2,000 copies arrived at her small bungalow on East Street.

"That was pretty crazy," she said. "My livingroom was full of books. I had to jump over stacks to get to the television, or the stereo. But it was awesome seeing all those copies. I looked at the books and thought, wow. It was hard to believe it was finally finished."

Actually, Smith said she is far from finished. Next month, she said she will travel to several flea markets to begin selling her books. She said she plans to continue to write during her travels.

Smith said the second novel will be a fictional tale of a 19th century baron who ruthlessly ruled a small town. She said she has already started the first three chapters. She said she’s hoping to have a finished draft of her second novel completed by next spring.

-- Gregg McLachlan

Resource: Steve Buttry's handout on the five Ws of attribution