Verify the Sources of Your Quotations

One of the most common problems I see in new writers’ nonfiction manuscripts is quotations that are either inaccurate, insufficiently sourced, or both.

You have in your notes, if not in the text, citations and links for your sources.

Sites like BrainyQuote,, and even Goodreads, which should know better, propagate quotations without verifying the sources. Before you reproduce a quotation in your book, track it to its source—the very first place it ever appeared. You may find this hard to believe, but often this proves rather difficult. The Internet doesn’t know everything.

Illustration © nuiiun • Fotolia
Illustration © nuiiun • Fotolia

For example, here’s a quote that I would love to use when I’m teaching about finding your purpose:

Where your talents and the needs of the world cross, there lies your vocation.

This is usually attributed to Aristotle. But no one ever says where in Aristotle. And do you see the problem in searching a corpus of Aristotle’s works to find it? Aristotle wrote in Greek.

So I need the name of the translator. But no one ever gives it.

(Seriously, if you know where in Aristotle this is written, let me know. But I’ve spent, cumulatively, days looking for this citation and I cannot find it.)

How to Verify a Quotation

As odd as this is going to sound, I have found that one of the most reliable sites for verifying (or debunking) quotations is Wikiquote. I know, crazy, right? But the geeks behind the scenes at Wikiquote are even more obsessive about this stuff than I am. Check out the Wikiquote page on Aristotle, and you’ll see what I mean. Every quotation is listed under the book it’s from, and it’s identified by what part of the book it’s in. The translator’s name is usually given, along with the Bekker numbers (a referencing system for citing passages from Aristotle across all translations and editions). Sometimes they even give the Greek, which warms my geeky heart.

As with any wiki, you have to double-check what you find there because you never know when an entry has been edited by a prankster or someone who is misinformed. But once you have a source and a citation, double-checking is easy.

Google Books can be very helpful in verifying quotations. The only problem is when, as with the Aristotle quotation, a particular phrase has been repeated in dozens of books. Sometimes you can use the “Custom Date Range” to narrow down to the earliest occurrence, but if, as in the case of my Aristotelian quest, the earliest occurrence still doesn’t contain a proper citation, then that’s a dead end.

If you can’t verify the source of the quote and omitting it will leave too big a hole in your manuscript, you’ll just have to scrub round it. Here’s what I say when I’m teaching on purpose:

Aristotle is reputed to have said (though no one ever gives a proper citation), “Where your talents and the needs of the world cross, there lies your vocation.” Regardless of who first said it, I believe it’s true.

How to Cite a Quotation

There are several ways a quotation may appear in your manuscript, and each calls for a different treatment.

Epigraph—This is the quote at the front of a book or the top of a chapter. The Chicago Manual of Style says an epigraph is “pertinent but not integral to the text” (1.36). The epigraph may have the same format as a block quotation or a different one. In your manuscript, I recommend using the same format for both: a 1-inch indent with no paragraph indent. The attribution goes on the next line after the quotation, often with a leading em-dash. If you’re into that sort of thing, you can read more about this in CMOS at 13.34. Sources for epigraphs are often not given, but you as the author should have them.

Running text—This is a quotation that is part of a paragraph, as my quotation from CMOS above. If you are writing for the general market you can usually get away with a citation like that one. In the scholarly market, however, you must thoroughly cite your sources in accordance with the style book specified by your publisher. Usually this will be CMOS. For a condensed version of CMOS citation styles, see the Purdue Online Writing Lab, which also offers guidance on APA and MLA styles.

Block quotation—This is a quotation that is integral to the text, inserted between two paragraphs, and indented from the rest of the text. Block quotation style is used for quotations that are more than six or eight lines, although it can also be used for shorter quotations if several are being given for comparison. Block quotations, because they are already set apart from the text, do not take quotation marks.

Quoted text may be either run in to the surrounding text and enclosed in quotation marks, “like this,” or set off as a block quotation, or extract. Block quotations, which are not enclosed in quotation marks, always start a new line. They are further distinguished from the surrounding text by being indented (from the left and sometimes from the right) or set in smaller type or a different font from the text. These matters are normally decided by the publisher’s designer or by journal style. (The Chicago Manual of Style, 13.9)

Note that the citation for the block quotation, unlike the one for the run-in quotation, goes outside the punctuation.

If the source you are citing is a website, then include a link in your e-book and the URL in your print edition.

Verifying the accuracy of your quotations is critical, because if a reader finds an error in your book, you lose credibility. (I don’t think highly of all those business book writers who quote Aristotle without, you know, actually quoting Aristotle). Providing the citation not only shows that you’ve done your research, but it also allows the reader to go to the source for more information. This will build your credibility.

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  1. […] I have literally hundreds of quotes in my autobiography, and after reading your post about them, I’m really confused. Most of what I’m writing about is not quoting a known source like Mark […]

  2. For what it’s worth, that Aristotle quote is not actually Aristotle, which is why you can’t find it. It’s actually a misquote of the famous Frederich Buechner quote, “Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” 🙂

    1. Excellent! Thank you so much for letting me know.

  3. Dave Newhouse says:

    Kristen, Apparently you and I with this need to verify are not alone. Check out this link to a dude that is, professionally, an analytics engineer. He does have strong clues to the origin of the quote, unquote, Aristotle attributed quote.

    Best regards (again, lol),
    Dave N.

    1. Great article! Thanks for the link, Dave.

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