To quote or not to quote

arm comes down

Q. I contribute regularly to several websites.

Someone I interviewed for an article now wants to withdraw a quote. He said it, no question, but now he regrets it. He says it could get him into trouble. Do I take it out?

A. Sorry. That’s a sticky situation.

And the answer is: It depends. It depends on the topic, depends on the quote, depends on how central the quote is to the point you’re trying to make. It depends on whether you can get that information in some other way. Depends on your editor and your audience. Depends on the source and your relationship with her/him.

Each time this situation pops up, I cringe. Last time it happened, I had already submitted the story when one source whined that he had spoken inappropriately. I phoned my editor to explain. “Not a problem,” he replied by e-mail.” And I don’t need to know why. I’ll make that cut.” Bless him.

That’s not a completely satisfying answer, is it? If you are early into your career, delete any quotation when someone backs down on. That will help you not burn bridges, allowing you to interview this person again for the same or another outlet. The repercussions of denying his wish could be unpleasant.

So far, my answer relates only to the process of interviewing and writing the story.

Once you take into account the legal possibilities, though, you will surely comply with the wishes of the interviewee. Unless you are among the rare writers who carry libel insurance, you are asking for trouble by crossing this person. Anyone can sue you for anything, whether or not the complaint is valid, and you need to respond to every suit. The time and money you will expend on defense will far outweigh any efforts for this story.

Even if you are right and your interview subject is wrong, I suggest you delete her/his quotation.

The best time to write

When is the best time of day to write?

A. Whatever time works for you.

When teaching adults to write nonfiction, I often ask when they prefer to write. The most common answer is 2 hours after awakening. The second-most-common time is late at night, when most other people are snoring. Occasionally people set an alarm for 2 a.m. and write until their eye-drops run out.

Morning is best for me, by the way. But it’s also the best time for me to go to the gym. If I don’t walk the treadmill first thing, I never do. If I delay writing in the morning, though, I always make time later. So I go to the gym as early as I can, then write.

The only reason to think about your best writing time is so that you can articulate it. Then build your life around it.

Now a question for you. What is your best time? How can you build your day around that time? Can you post a sign on your cube from 8 to 9 a.m. – or 3 to 3:45 p.m. – that says, Writing in progress? Can you find a quiet corner near your office or office building where you can hide out frequently?

Most important: Find the best time of day for you to write. Then write then.


8 great tips for creating writers’ contracts

pencil slanted

Q. Can you please show me a writer’s contract?

A. Sure.

I use a contract or a simple letter of agreement that clarifies who will do what, my fee, and payment terms.  No lawyers involved. No big words. Here’s a sample contract with a client to ghost-write an article for an (imaginary) professional magazine.

Thank you for inviting me to write a 500- to 750-word article about investing in real estate for Private Asset Management.

  1. You will give me a bulleted outline of the sub-topics. You will answer my questions in a timely manner so that I can meet your deadline. You will send me links to sources of additional information, if appropriate.
  2. I understand that the information you give me is confidential and of great value to you. I will respect your intellectual property.
  3. The names of Ms. A and Mr. B will appear as the authors of this article. My name will not appear.
  4. I agree to write the article for delivery on or before DATE. I will provide one major revision and any minor changes before DATE.
  5. I will charge an hourly fee of $400 (don’t I wish), and I anticipate that this project will require 4 hours.
  6. If you decide to change the scope or subject of the article, we will consider that a rewrite. If that happens, there might then be additional fees and/or an extension of the delivery date.
  7. We will consider the assignment “accepted” when you approve it, regardless of whether the publisher decides to use it.
  8. You agree to pay me on or before DATE, upon accepting and approving the article.

Susan Perloff

Now write one of your own.

What brand computer should I buy?

typing smaller

Question: What brand computer should I buy?
Answer: That depends on your needs.

American homes and offices have 260 million laptops and desktops. 86 percent of American computers are PCs. Apple users are fanatical about their computers.

Apple computers

• More Mac users than PC users are satisfied with their computers.
• Apple computers cost more.
• If you have important clients who use Mac, buy a Mac.
• You may have to buy Microsoft Office separately.
• Best for creating graphics, charts, visual art.
• You can find support at a “genius bar” in an Apple store.
• Computer hackers who create viruses do so almost exclusively for PCs.
• PCs come with more memory than a Mac of the same cost.
• If you need more memory, you need to buy it.

Windows computers

• If you have important clients who use Windows, buy Windows.
• If Microsoft Word is your primary software, choose a Windows PC.
• Word for Windows is far more sophisticated than Word for Apple. Source: Substantial personal experience.
• You can find support through the manufacturer.
• Most Windows computers cost less than Apples. The better your purchase, the less you need to be concerned about security and reliability.
• Computer hackers who create viruses do so more frequently for PCs.
• PCs come with higher memory than a Mac of the same cost.

Death of SAT essay doesn’t matter

Samson Street closed


Since people can’t write when they graduate from college, what difference does it make whether they can write when they enter?

People earn undergraduate and graduate degrees, build profitable careers in business, the arts, whatever — and still don’t know a command verb from a comma.

Having taught a thousand adults to write nonfiction — and that’s the truth — since 1988, I know that basic grammar is a lost art. It kills me. Doctors can’t write, lawyers can’t write, chiefs of staffs can’t write. I wonder how they communicate with patients, clients and the rest of the world.

Each year I notice a marginal decline in writing literacy. Recently it’s getting worse. Many people are victims of inadequate educations, even from name-brand universities.

Once a man hired me to train his advertising staff to write better. We did 10 hours of classes. Soon after, I encountered him in a movie theater. He introduced me to his wife, an English teacher in a Philadelphia high school. “My students don’t like grammar,” she said, “so I don’t teach it.”

Flabbergastation overwhelmed me. I thanked her for breeding my future students.

Not that a good grasp of grammar guarantees good writing. It don’t.

Good writing matters. Many people claim writing skills they clearly lack. Whom to blame? One high-school teacher? College professors focus on their courses’ content — even instructors of English literature, and even in schools with writing-across-the-curriculum programs — and sidestep plain, ordinary writing skills. Whether profs don’t know or don’t care about grammar, the results are the same: unschooled writers at graduation.

The ones who gall me the most are those who call themselves professionals and charge for their services. Those who passively accept passive voice because they don’t recognize the alternative.

Even though I write for a living, I don’t claim to be the best writer on my block. But since I cannot subtract or divide, I don’t promote myself as a bookkeeper. I hated science classes, so I don’t consult on bridge construction, electrical engineering or ravaging influenza viruses. How can someone who cannot organize a three-sentence news release earn $$$ to write website copy?

But, you might say, one can tell a great story without writing well. Yes, and think how much more compelling the tale would sound if one tightened the copy and used more-precise words. Writing is a dying art, you say. True. But so are penmanship and steam engines and virgin weddings.

Someone still needs to write manuals for the next generation of tech tools, speeches for not-yet-elected officials and books and magazines for your pleasure. Writing can never die. It can get weak and powerless and boring and fuzzy. Wait: That’s where I started.

Try this at home: Think of a story you tell often: an anecdote about driving, diving or donuts. Write it. Can you make it sound as fun, as poignant, as energetic as the one you recite?

When organizations invite me to review their existing written material, I cannot believe that no employee nor expensive consultant has noticed that they spell their town’s name wrong on their stationery. That their website never specifies what the company does. That they omit the dollar amount in their requests for funding.

Too many Americans fail to organize their writing projects, covering all necessary points, focusing on the essentials, eliminating the chaff.

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary to write a eulogy, a love letter, a plea to an elected official, flyers for a nonprofit or sales reports to the boss — it helps to be able to link sentences together into cohesive, coherent paragraphs and pages. The writer has to do the work, I tell students, so the reader doesn’t.

SAT essays are still optional. College applicants can write them in crowded spaces surrounded by other terrified teens, using No. 2 pencils on lined paper. How anachronistic. Even though teachers have quit teaching handwriting, adolescents have to write legibly — now, under extreme pressure.

The anxiety to write neatly, filling a random but fastidiously strict length, can kill the creativity and writing ability in most candidates.

In 2012, Les Perelman, then a director of writing at MIT, met with David Coleman, soon to become president of the College Board, which owns the SAT. He recalled the conversation in a New York Times Magazine article:

“When is there a situation in either college or life when you’re asked to write on demand about something you’ve never once thought about?” Coleman asked. “I’ve never gotten an e-mail from a boss saying: ‘Is failure necessary for success? Get back to me in 25 minutes.’ But that’s what the SAT does.”

Since these essays prove little about the writing ability of future freshmen, dropping them or making them voluntary changes nothing.

Once I taught “effective writing” (an ineffective title), in a non-credit program. In the first session, each person submitted a paper proving that their grasp of writing resembled my grasp of sub-quantum kinetics. Before the evening ended, I mentioned my decision to amend the syllabus to include a session on grammar. One woman, the worst offender, actually, rose and headed for the exit. I asked if she would be returning. No, she said. “I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with A’s in English. I don’t need to learn grammar.”

I responded that I had graduated from the same U with B’s in English, but that it seemed as though some remediation was in order. What must she have written on her SAT essay?

A woman in an essay-writing class once brought a haunting piece about the graveside funeral for her cranky grandmother. Everyone at the funeral was welcome to speak, but no one did. After several awkward, silent moments, a boy said, “She made good cookies.”

At the funeral for the SAT essay, I am keeping my mouth shut.


NOTE: This article appeared March 26, 2014, on