by Kristen Hall Geisler, Collaborative Editor
Authors, especially nonfiction authors, love to use quotations in their work. They can be inspiring words from past philosophers or motivating words from today’s leaders. You can use them as epigraphs at the head of each chapter to give the reader a flavor for what’s to come, or you can sprinkle them throughout the text to reinforce your ideas. Quotations can add color, shape, and authority to your work.
The trouble comes in knowing if the quote you’re using is correct. Did that person ever actually say or write such a thing? How can you possibly know? Let’s go over some general tactics to use when finding great quotes to use in your book.
The Sniff Test
The sniff test requires nothing more than your own intuition. When you find a great quote attributed to someone very famous, does it seem too good to be true? There are a few people who have lots of quotes attributed to them. Confucius, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, and even Steve Jobs and Oprah are credited with many more quotes than they ever actually said or wrote. And if Lincoln has been quoted as saying something about Twitter, it should definitely not pass your sniff test.
Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations
This old standby from your high school days is still the gold standard for quotes. You can trust that everything you find in Bartlett’s is properly attributed. It’s arranged by topic, so you can find reliable quotes that pertain to the subject of your book or chapter. And of course it has an app.
The Quote Investigator
As an editor, The Quote Investigator is one of my go-to sources. If a quote seems a little off to me, or if I can’t easily find where it first appeared, I search to see if Garson O’Toole has done the work for me and found the source of a popular quote.
This one is a little more finicky to use, but Wikiquote is a trove of great quotes and sources. As with any wiki, it can have the answer you’re looking for, or it can be a starting place for finding quotes to use. One feature in particular that I appreciate is at the bottom of a list of entries for a particular person, there is often a box of quotes commonly misattributed to that person. If someone has found the correct source, it will be listed there.
If the quote you want to use is from an older book that’s likely in the public domain, there’s a good chance it’s been scanned into Google Books. Plug some key words or phrases into the search bar and see what comes up. You may find the correct wording is a little different in the original, or that the author is different from the one listed where you found the quote.
If you’re a writer—or even a reader—I cannot recommend enough that you keep a commonplace. This is where you write any quote that strikes your fancy as you read, maybe along with what about it struck your fancy, maybe not. It’s up to you. But you should definitely note the author’s name, the title of the book or website, and the year of publication of the edition or webpage you’re reading. You can use an app, a text file, or a paper notebook. There is no better source than your own eyeballs reading the original work (or your own ears listening to the original audiobook or podcast or what have you) plus your notes of who said it, where, and when.
Some Not Great Sources for Quotes
Anyplace that does not give you the author’s name and where it was first published or posted is not a great source. Ideally, you’d also get a date too, but even a name and source will let you verify the rest of the details. You don’t want to use the following as sources for quotes:
- Collections of quotes on most websites
- Posters, pillows, or other items available for sale
- Tweets of quotes without attribution
- Instagram graphics
- Facebook posts of quotes
- Pinterest graphics
If you do find a great quote in any of these places, see if you can chase down the original source using any of the recommendations listed above.
It’s a little more work to find a correctly attributed quote, but it’s worth it. I had a client who used many quotes to illustrate his points in a workbook-style project. When I fact-checked those quotes, I found that nearly half were misattributed, so I asked him if he wanted to remove or change them. He decided to look for different quotes, and what he found were more modern and more pertinent quotes from more diverse writers, speakers, entrepreneurs, and athletes. He was happier with these quotes than with those he had found for the early drafts.
Also keep in mind that some quotes require permissions to legally reprint. More on that in this great Indigo article: “The Nitty-Gritty on Permissions.”
And always remember: “The problem with quotes on the internet is that it is hard to verify their authenticity.” — Abraham Lincoln (source: the internet)
Kristen Hall-Geisler has edited more than 125 projects with Indigo since 2012. The number of quotations she has checked in those projects is far, far higher. She is also the author of the historical novel Skull and Sidecar and the publisher of the forthcoming redesign of the classic Life Among the Paiutes by Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins.