“Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.”

—Abraham Lincoln

Such wise words from a wise man—but wait!—yes, now you noticed too. Though Lincoln would’ve surely agreed with such wisdom had the internet existed in his day, the fact remains that the internet did not exist in the 1800s, no matter how visually appealing that Pinterest graphic is that you just pinned.

Knowing how to properly quote outside material is a common challenge that authors face, from verifying the source to properly attributing it within the text and on any citation page at the end. But with some basic guidelines, you as the author can do your due diligence in sourcing the quotes.

The general idea is to provide as clear a path as possible from the origin to the context you are using it in while respecting the copyright laws of your country.

And yes, this can be a challenge sometimes because language is constantly evolving and pithy statements get summarized as they are repeated from person to person. Think of the game “Telephone.” Often popular quotes are far older, or far more recent than you realize which can easily lead to misquoting them. And that’s just one challenge authors face.

If you neglect the task of verifying outside quotes, it makes you the author appear lazy and irresponsible. Even though the internet has muddied certain aspects of research, it’s also made it incredibly easy to verify a quote or uncover if the source is hotly contested. The Chicago Manual of Style devotes an entire chapter (roughly 50 pages with about 100 individual rules/caveats) to the subject of copyright, use, and permission. So it’s not enough to just pull a quote from Brainy Quote and call it a day.

Before we dive into how to treat some common types of sources, we need to cover some basics.

Public Domain & Copyrights

In the United States, any works published before 1923 are now considered public domain and the limitations of copyright have been removed.

Once in the public domain, a work is free for all to use. The use may be direct and simple; for example, Mark Twain’s novels have now lost their copyrights and may be republished free of royalty. Or the public-domain works may be the compost from which new works, such as adaptations or other derivative works, spring in due course. Such new works are entitled to copyright, but their copyright is limited to the new material they contain.

CMOS 4.22

Regarding copyrights, the current US law reads:

Under the current law, works created on or after January 1, 1978, have a copyright term of life of the author plus seventy years after the author’s death. If the work is a joint work, the term lasts for seventy years after the last surviving author’s death.


There are of course other situations with different guidelines (which are spelled out at copyright.gov) but the author’s life + 70 years is the general rule of the thumb. Because I live and work in the US, these guidelines will be based around US copyright law, but be aware that your country may have different guidelines.

Fair Use

But do you have to get written permission if you just want to quote one or a few lines of a book, sermon, or poem? That’s where the doctrine of fair use comes in.

According to the Chicago Manual of Style:

The doctrine of fair use, which allows limited use of copyrighted work without permission, was originally developed by courts as an equitable limit on the absolute rights of copyright.

CMOS 4.84

Fair use allows for authors to reprint a few lines of a song, poem, TED talk, book, etc. without going through the process of obtaining permission from the original creator as long as it doesn’t “constitute the heart of the work being quoted” (CMOS 4.86).

As you’ll quickly discover with matters of fair use, there is no hard and fast language for what constitutes a violation, but a lot of language about the intent and proportions of the material being quoted. That’s why it’s best for authors to read up on the material for themselves as it relates to their own work. For more information on fair use, click here.

Basic Sources

So back to you the author, your WIP, and whatever quote you’d like to include at the moment. Most authors (specifically non-fiction authors) are going to incorporate one or more of the following basic types of quoted material: popular/inspirational quotes, brief excerpts from other articles or books, stats, song lyrics/poetry, sermon, or talk excerpts, and scripture from the Bible. We will dive into these in more detail in the upcoming part two of this post, but I did want to touch on one big red flag authors should be aware of.

Unknown” sources

Unless an author leaves me a note about how much they’ve researched a quote and just can’t find the author, if I see a quote marked as “Unknown,” my first thought is that the author is being lazy. With a little more research, I can usually find the source or after looking through multiple articles, can see how multiple sources have been woven together to produce the version we are familiar with, and that patchwork background can be noted in the manuscript.

When verifying the source of a quote, I would encourage you to look at more than one resource and look for references to the actual source material (book, sermon, speech, etc). A user-generated graphic on Pinterest or Brainy Quote is just not the actual source material.

While this may seem daunting at first, I promise that with practice, you’ll get the hang of it. So now I want to hear from you—what challenges do you face when quoting outside material? Is there a source that you are hung up on? Leave me a comment below and let’s chat!

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