Writing tip: Sourcing quotes

Oct 6, 2014 | Better Writing

“Keep an open mind but not so open that your brain falls out.”

Jonathan Becher used that quote in a speech about innovation. He didn’t know the source, but he thought that Richard Feynman had said it. Then a reporter asked for the source, and Jonathan did a little digging.

He discovered that there was more than one version of the quote and that it could be attributed to several people. You can read the details in his blog post, “Keep an Open Mind.

I read it just after I had reviewed a manuscript that began with a quote that was certainly misattributed to Ben Franklin. The language was clearly 21st Century. I’m betting the authors got the quote from one of the many quote sites online.

Quote sites are a problem

If you’re looking for an interesting quote about a topic, those quote sites can be really helpful. But, as far as I can tell, no one is responsible for verifying the sources of those quotes. So if you want to use a quote from those sites in a book or blog, I think you should do a little research to find out who actually said it.

Wikiquote is a good starting point

The nice thing about Wikiquote is that they source quotes. Some sourcing is very precise with a publication and page number. Other times, you will see a source note like “quoted in …” a particular book. Then, you may want to do some more research.

Look inside the books

Use Google to search for the quote. Very likely, you’ll be pointed to the original book and be able to see the actual text. Be careful though, sometimes the quote is a bit different than what you think. Then, it’s a good idea to try a search the book for the key words in the quote and their synonyms.

Another good sourcing tool

If you’d like to do the kind of search that Jonathan Becher did, but you don’t have the expertise or time. Check out Quote Investigator. Here’s a link to their investigation into who said “Do Not Be So Open-Minded That Your Brains Fall Out.”

When research fails

Sometimes you just can’t determine with any certainty who said that juicy tidbit you want to use. All is not lost. You can attribute it to that great source, “Unknown.” Or you can say that you’ve heard the quote attributed to whoever your best guess is for the author.