Fossil organisms offer our only direct insight into how the distinctive body plans of extant organisms were assembled. However, realizing the potential evolutionary significance of fossils can be hampered by controversy over their interpretation. Here, as a guide to evaluating palaeontological debates, we outline the process and pitfalls of fossil interpretation. The physical remains of controversial fossils should be reconstructed before interpreting homologies, and choice of interpretative model should be explicit and justified. Extinct taxa lack characters diagnostic of extant clades because the characters had not yet evolved, because of secondary loss, or because they have rotted away. The latter, if not taken into account, will lead to the spurious assignment of fossils to basally branching clades. Conflicting interpretations of fossils can often be resolved by considering all the steps in the process of anatomical analysis and phylogenetic placement, although we must accept that some fossil organisms are simply too incompletely preserved for their evolutionary significance to be realized.