Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Quotations—How Writers Find the Original Source

by Linda Gilden @LindaGilden

Often when editing a book for someone I come across a quote that is either improperly sourced or not sourced at all. When I ask the author about it, I have heard many answers. But the most appalling is, “Well, it was on the internet so I thought it was okay to use it.”

Yes, you can use it but not without proper credit and, sometimes, permission.

Using quotes from other people or from books lends credibility to your writing and supports the information you are using. Quotations give you a way another expert to reinforce the information you are trying to communicate.

Do your best to track a quote back to the original source. Don’t stop at the first place you see it; that may not be the original source. Some websites or blogs list a source because that is the location they found a quote. However, they may have failed to trace it back to the original source.

How can you do that?

First, consider the source that is listed with the quote. Is it attributed to someone who has been gone for decades or maybe even centuries but the source has been listed as a contemporary website, blog, or book? If that is the case, you’ll need to do some research.

For instance, Alexander Hamilton is quoted on several of the often-used quote websites as having said, “When the sword is once drawn, the passions of men observe no bounds of moderation.” An entire Broadway musical has been written about this man. But the quote wasn’t original to the musical either. We know Alexander Hamilton didn’t say that yesterday but we don’t know if it was part of a speech, written in a book, or spoken to his next-door neighbor.

The best place to locate the source of the quote is to paste it into google with quotation marks around it. Carefully study the resources that come up. Many of them will be the well-known sites for quotes. Select one that will take you back to an original source.

We know Alexander Hamilton lived in the late 1700s. So I looked for entries that were historical in nature or contained papers with Hamilton’s writing in them. Finally found that this quote was part of Hamilton’s efforts in Federalist paper #16 to address the inadequacy of the Articles of the Confederation and argue for a federal government. It was dated 4 December 1787. 

When giving attribution to the quote you are using, you do not have to put all that information with the quote. It would be fine to say in your article or book, “In 1787 Alexander Hamilton said, When the sword is once drawn, the passions of men observe no bounds of moderation.’” However, when you turn it in to the editor, he or she will appreciate a separate source sheet that tells him or her just where to find the original source.

Beth Patch, Spiritual Life Producer at, says, “Since we are online, I prefer not to use footnotes or endnotes. I usually cite the resource in the body of the text and hyperlink it where possible. If the source was a book, I would hyperlink to the book.” 

When you are writing an article for a specific magazine, ask your editor “How do you prefer quotes to be handled? Do you want sources cited in the body of the manuscript, prefer footnotes, end notes, or just a reference or resource sheet?” This information is sometimes found in the writer’s guidelines.

“I think it is important when I quote someone, to make sure I use the direct quote in quotation marks and include the author’s name,” says Susan Reichert, Editor-in-Chief, Southern Writers Magazine.“Right after the author's name, I then feel it important to cite the place I got the quote along with the website address.”

Different editors will handle quote citation in different ways but all will want correct, original sources. With the current trend being to use few or no endnotes and footnotes, documentation often is put on a separate sheet and sent with your manuscript. That information will be filed by the editor and only used if someone inquires about the original source.

Writers love to use quotes. One word of caution, if you find the perfect quote to support your writing but you have never heard of the person who said the words, be sure to look him or her up. As inspirational writers, we need to make sure we quote people who are believers. Otherwise, readers may wonder if our beliefs align with the source of the quote who may believe very differently and have values unlike our own.

Quoting from the internet is no different than quoting from anywhere else. Don’t make the mistake my editing client did and think that just because words are on the world wide web, they are not free and clear world wide words for anyone to use.


Linda Gilden is an award-winning writer, speaker, editor, certified writing and speaking coach, and personality consultant. Her passion is helping others discover the joy of communicating with excellence. In the midst of all the busyness, Linda’s favorite activity is floating in a pool with a good book surrounded by splashing grandchildren—a great source of writing material!


  1. Great tips Ms. Linda, as always. Thanks for sharing this valuable info. God's blessings.

    1. Thank you, Jim. Such a blessing to be able to do so.

  2. Thank you, Linda. FAR too many authors ignore this. It's so bad that we have a separate step in our editorial process that is ONLY permissions and verifications. And if the author doesn't provide documentation on an original source, the quote comes out. There is no argument here.

    1. Thank you, Ramona. We are so blessed to have diligent editors like you who make sure we follow the rules.

  3. Thanks for clarifying this, Linda. I'm a high school and college (adjunct) English instructor, so I teach students to cite sources within their writing to avoid plagiarism. I knew the rules must be different for articles and posts because obviously we don't see parenthetical citations in those texts. I just haven't taken the time yet to research the rules. Thank you for saving me a bit of work. :)

  4. So glad to have teacher affirmation. Thank you, Karen. So glad you are there to help students learn the correct way in the beginning. Blessings!