Are You Breaking These Quoting Rules?


I read something today that made me laugh, and sadly that was not the intention of the quote. I’m sure it was meant to be inspirational, but it missed on two marks. The first was that it didn’t make sense. The second was that it is highly doubtful that the individual named as the source would have said such a thing.

Here’s the quote that was used.

“The mechanic that would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools. “

And who was attributed this pearl of wisdom? Confucius

Perhaps Confused might be more appropriate. Mechanics? Sharpening their tools? I don’t think so. Carpenters would make more sense, yes? This goes to show that just because you found a quote doesn’t necessarily mean it’s accurate in message or source.

When you find the source, you know its accuracy

Marie Forleo wrote about her own challenges when writing her book "Everything is Figureoutable". Quotes she’d loved and posted around her workspace over the years, proved to be inaccurate. Using due diligence to research those much-loved quotes revealed that what she had taken as truth, wasn’t.

Well, you know what they say, don’t believe everything you read on the internet. Everyone can write or post or share, but the fine art of research seems to be up to those willing to be professionals.






Where does permission come into your quoting decision?

Something else to consider about quoting others in your work is do you have permission to do so?

I imagine that like me you have various authors that you read and enjoy. Maybe big names like Brene Brown or Charles Duhigg or Malcolm Gladwell. You like them so much in fact, and their work resonates so well with what you are trying to get across, that you want to quote them. But should you, or can you?

Well, that depends. First, ask yourself how integral it is to get your point across. Does the quote give vital information? Then it may be worth the work required to use it. More about that in a minute.

If it is meant as inspirational and it adds to your work in a way that helps you further your point, then you may want to use it. There is nothing like a well-placed quote to focus attention and bring the nuance of your subject to hand. But, here are some of the finer points to consider.

If the quote is not direct and you are mentioning the source and their work in a general way, you’re likely fine. Something like — Frances Hickmott’s work on self-leadership explains why it is one of the most fundamental areas of personal growth for aspiring leaders.

For direct quotes, if the work you want to use is by an author who has been dead for more than 50 years, then it’s open for what’s known as Public Domain. As for citing scientific research, it is a straightforward procedure. If it is released to the Creative Commons, then you need only attribute as specified. If neither of those situations exist in your quote seeking permissions, then you will have to dig deeper to find out who owns the rights and how to correctly ask to use the selected text.

Who owns the rights and how do you ask permission?

What if the original author is alive and that amazing scientific research is in a journal? And, what if there’s a whole passage you want to quote? Or several sentences? That’s where this gets a bit confusing because this can depend on- wait for it — who you ask.

Ah yes, searching this information out on the internet or even conversations with other writers may result in different ideas. In my quest for answers, I had a few people tell me that there’s a magic number of words you can quote without asking permission. That may be true but general ideas worry me because of the potential hassle down the road. For that reason, I tend to err on the side of caution.


When writing my book Journey to Joy,  published in 2020, there was information from Brene Brown I wanted to use, but I knew that it was in my best interests to seek permission. I was not comfortable with the adage — it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. That might work in some situations but I didn’t want to try it out with a major publishing firm if they decided to sue for infringement.

With that in mind, I found the email address for the publishing house and wrote to ask for permission to use the quote.

Here’s what I learned when trying to use some of Brown’s work.

  1. Not only do you need to specify the quote you want to use and the book and page number it came from, but also list the ISBN version of the book you are sourcing from.
  2. Include the context of your work, so they can see more clearly how the quote will be used. If you are writing something that is not in the spirit of her work — say the case for how to use the illusion of vulnerability to get ahead, well that’s problematic.
  3. You must get permission for the quote for every version of your work. Yes, you read that right. If you publish a book, ebook, audiobook and whatever forms may come into existence, you must acquire separate permission for each of those.
  4. If you are granted permission it only lasts three years, so you’d have to re-apply. This may not hold true with other publishers, but this was the case for Random House.

Ultimately, I decided that my work could stand on its own. I did mention Brown and her thoughts but only in a general manner. Since I’d included the quotes before finding out what was involved, I had to go back through my manuscript and edit those quotes out. My work didn’t suffer from losing them and happily, there were other references and other sources that came through just fine.

Sourcing resources for your writing

After the fact, I also found an excellent article on the subject written by Jane Friedman and trust her information because she cites resources for you to check out. I tend to trust writers more when they provide links to sources outside their own work. To me, that spells a level of professionalism and a desire to enhance the knowledge of your readers.

As for inspirational quotes — backtrack as much as you can to see if indeed you can find actual cited quotes. I think there are far more incorrect attributions than we realize. Here's a link to a handy site that will help you in your quest to research quotes. 

And please, for the sanctity of our craft, don’t fall into the trap that the intrepid writer quoting Confucius did, and simply copy and paste. Because seriously, it’s hard to take anything else you say with any authority if you can’t be bothered to look more closely at what you’re attaching to your work.

Frances Hickmott is a speaker on the subject of self-leadership and blogs about mindset, resilience, and courage. She recently exercised all three when writing her first non-fiction book — Journey to Joy: How to Overcome Life’s Setbacks and Create a Life You Love. 


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