Quoting Others Doesn’t Always Make You Look Smart

There is a tendency for authors of self-help books to quote others. These quotes are usually (1) from a recognised author who has penned books of a similar or related subject to the one this author is currently writing and/or (2) ‘feel good’ phrases.

I assume the reason for the former is to give one’s own book some backing from a ‘recognised authority’ and I assume the reason for the latter is to ‘inspire’ the reader. A reason which may drive both the aforementioned is that the author wants to show off how well-read they are.

One of the fundamental rules to writing is to include only what is necessary. So, what are the criteria for evaluating the necessity of any given quote?


Relevance of the Quote: General vs Particular

First, I would like to make the distinction between the nature of the quote itself and how it is relevant to your book. A quote can in itself be a vague generality or it can be very particular. In either case, it can be generally relevant to your text or it can be particularly relevant to your text.

For example, Bob Smith said, ‘Sometimes, monkeys are evil.’ It’s a vague statement but if you want to dispute this view of Smith’s in your book, then it’s a particular which you need to quote.

If, on the other hand, you’re writing a book about monkeys and you want to make the point that monkeys are sometimes evil, then state it yourself. Why bother quoting Smith? He has not provided any statistical data so there’s nothing concrete to support your view. It’s a vague statement which is of mere general relevance to your book, one which you are capable of making yourself.

A quote, especially a vague one, which is of mere general relevance to your text is filler at best. At worst, it’s tacky and distracts your reader. If there is a point to be made, then make it in your own words. After all, what’s the point of reading your book if you keep on quoting others? The reader may as well read the author(s) you’re quoting.

There are also potential legal issues with quotations even when properly referenced. This depends on the extent and how the quotations are used but, to put it simply, avoid them unless necessary.

I am not denying that there can be a balance between being able to put your views in your own words and quoting someone of authority to support your arguments but this point is more applicable to academic and/or analytical texts.


Accuracy and Context Matters

Be careful who and what you quote. This is more than about accuracy. Do you know what the quote truly means? Do you know what the author intended?

To be fair, most of us are not mind-readers and we have not met or are likely to meet the ones we are quoting. If they are still alive, then one can ask for clarification but there’s no guarantee of getting an answer. This makes it all the more important to put in the effort to know who and what you are quoting.

Do you even know which book the quote comes from? Have you read it? Do you know the circumstances in which the author wrote or said what you’re quoting? As a personal rule, I don’t quote someone unless I have read the entire text in which I found the quote because that’s the minimum work I have to do to understand the broader context.

Let me give a crude example: I can use the Holy Bible to support atheism.

    There is no God.
          – Psalm 13:1 (Douay Rheims)

I haven’t changed any words, I just omitted some. The first verse of Psalm 13 is below. Notice how differently it reads when one includes the rest of the verse. And one’s interpretation will change again when one reads the entire Psalm.

    Unto the end, a psalm for David.
    The fool hath said in his heart: There is no God,
    They are corrupt, and are become abominable in their ways:
    there is none that doth good, no not one.

          – Psalm 13:1 (Douay Rheims)

Even if you think you understand the quote and its context, research the author. To include something ‘inspirational’ by a poet may seem nice for your self-help book … until one discovers that the poet committed suicide in their early 30s. That level of incongruence between the quote and its author will hardly inspire.

Quoting to look well-read and smart usually has the opposite effect. So please don’t unless necessary and, if you do, there is no substitute for the hard work that is called ‘studying’.



There are various conventions for referencing. If an author does not have a preference, then the editor will adopt one that is best for your book. In any case, it is the editor’s job to check your references and ensure their consistency.

Nevertheless, it is not the editor’s job to do the referencing for you. As already mentioned, know who and what you’re quoting. Please make sure the quote is accurate. Check and provide the name(s) attributed to the quote and the name of the book or text in which the quote is found.

Setting aside any potential legal issues, proper referencing is just the honest and professional thing to do.

Joey To
Writer / Editor

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