By Jenn Kepler, Collaborative Editor
You found it. A quotation that eloquently conveys the mood or theme of your book. And a well-known person said it—even better. You Google the quotation and see it appears on several websites, so you feel confident using it in your book.
Unfortunately, the internet is full of misattributed and misquoted quotes. Quote database websites are one of the main culprits. Articles with titles such as “The 30 Most Inspirational Quotes of All Time,” complete with sharable images of the quote next to a photo of the author or over a majestic landscape, are also full of these often misattributed and misquoted quotations, despite appearing on popular websites.
Misattributed quotes are so widespread that if you see a quotation credited to Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, or some other famous person, there’s a good chance that person never said it. How can you be sure a quotation you want to use in your book is accurate?
As a line editor, I often run into misattributed or misquoted quotations at the beginning of a book or start of a part or chapter. These types of ornamental quotations are known as epigraphs. The Chicago Manual of Style defines an epigraph as “a quotation that is pertinent but not integral to the text” (CMS 1.37). The source of the quotation is usually given on the next line, sometimes preceded by an em dash.
Before using a quotation in your book, you should always consider: How important is it that you include the quotation? If you have decided the quotation is pertinent, be prepared to track down the original, earliest source of the quotation. This can be a difficult task, since quotations have been misattributed for years. Websites such as Quote Investigator and The Phrase Finder and books such as The Yale Book of Quotations and The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations can help point in you the right direction. Trustworthy sources will include full citations for the quote—the author, title of the work, publisher, year of publication, and page number if applicable—not just the author’s name.
Verifying accuracy extends beyond the written word as well. If you’re quoting from a movie or TV show, no matter how many times you’ve seen the movie, you might not be remembering the scene or quote exactly. Yes, you really should go back and rewatch that part of the film, look for the script, or find a clip of the scene on YouTube to verify you got the quote right.
Also, keep track of your sources. If you’re working with a collaborative editor at Indigo for line editing, they will do their best to fact-check quotations. But some publishers leave the responsibility to the authors, as recommended by Chicago (see CMS 2.56). Plus, it’s your responsibility as the author to ensure you have proper permission to reprint a quote, when necessary (see another great Indigo article on that here).
What if you can’t find the original source of the quotation or the origin is disputed? You might be better off not using the quotation at all. Otherwise, you risk losing credibility with your audience and contributing to the spread of misinformation. Quotations can enhance your work but only when they are used accurately and carefully.
Jenn Kepler specializes in line editing and proofreading both fiction and nonfiction. She has a background in journalism and has been helping authors track down primary sources for more than a decade.