What I Wish I Knew About Quoting Other People In My Writing

If you actually think Warren Buffett said this, please never write with quotes.

Recently, I read a passage from someone working in psychology which said, “Every time I want to make a point, my brain immediately asks, ‘Is there a widely-cited, randomized controlled test study to support that?’” If there wasn’t, they would decide not to pursue the idea any further.

I can relate, all too well. This particular anecdote had been bouncing around in my mind for the past few days, and I’ve spent time searching for it to no avail. I start searching, thinking to myself, “Maybe it was in one of the books I’d read on Kindle, or a tweet.” I spend precious time looking for it, only to come to acceptance that I’ve lost it. 

This used to be a showstopper for me. In the past, I would resign the idea the same way the author of the introductory passage would. After all, nobody wants to sound like this guy:

I burst into tears laughing at this. Although I probably shouldn’t be, I’m still in slight disbelief that Bertrand Russell was the author.

I refer to this compulsion as quote anxiety: a need to quote other people with extreme, unnecessary, precision. You’ll know when you experience quote anxiety: instead of supporting your writing, the need to quote people consumes it and gets in the way. (I got this idea from author Luke Burgis, who calls this source anxiety.) It could also easily be called reference anxiety, in that there’s a similar need to reference an event, expert, or study.

I’ve literally spent hours—through a span of days, weeks, or even years—often looking for “that perfect quote that this prominent person said,” or “that study that I thought described this situation.” I shake my head as I write that. Too much time searching, too little writing. 

It’s a tormenting thought, one that I’ve resolved by writing over 1,000 index cards by hand. Most of them are quotes or stats that I find interesting.

If this is something you feel as a content creator—the constant need to quote—here are some of the insights I’ve learned along the way to make the journey smoother:

Acknowledge the limits of your sources

Early into my journey as an author, I’d resolved I would do my best not to contribute to the mis-truths out there. That starts with quoting, citing, and referencing accurately. Each person should get credit for the thing they said or did. I would have made a small fortune if I had a dollar for every time I visited Wikiquote or Quote Investigator. (Meanwhile investor Warren Buffett is a preset option in a meme-maker.)

I noticed, as I read through a lot of books, that many authors and editors deal with the same problem—they’re simply savvier with using popular quotes even if they are apocryphal or unverified. For example, Diaminds co-authors Mihnea Moldoveanu and Roger Martin re-tell an apocryphal Henry Kissinger story by acknowledging that even though it was plausible, “Though truth may not be counted among its merits.”

Similarly, in The Time Paradox, co-authors John Boyd and Philip Zimbardo write, “Albert Einstein was an expert on time, and he is rumored to have said that compound interest ‘is the most powerful force in the universe.’ We doubt the authenticity of the quotation, but we do not doubt its veracity.” 

An unverified or unsourced quote, in other words, has its own use. It can be a transition point into an interesting topic, not necessarily the backbone of an article. 

Expand beyond your sources

Quotes or events can also be a way for you to tell the story that you want to explore. In her biography on Niccolò Machiavelli, Be Like the Fox, Erica Benner writes, “Lacking any sources that tell us what he thought or did in the wake of this disappointment, most biographers, one borrowing form another, are apt to repeat the following speculations…” 

She continues by sharing her own experience studying Machiavelli, “But it’s hard to fit this version of effects with the resilience Niccolò had shown through far more painful setbacks in his life. … It seems unlikely, then, that despair over the loss of an election was the main cause of his subsequent illness.” Benner leans into her experience to suggest a new possibility in Machiavelli’s story.

It’s fitting that Benner channels Machiavelli in a way, using his story from the past to comment on present times indirectly the same way he did. As she writes, names and details may change, but not basic human error and motives. She quotes Machiavelli, “Changing the names and forms of things means that only the prudent recognize them.” A useful technique if you don’t want to reveal too much about your personal life. Write your opinion or how you can relate to the quote.

Write entirely without quotes

This is probably the strongest step to work through quote anxiety. It’s obvious that citing an expert or historical event makes for clear reporting and relevance. As much as the author borrows credibility, they also can duck responsibility. 

For example, by citing, sourcing, or quoting, I’m hedging my writing and thinking with the option to blame it on the source. If something sounds dumb, and you comment, “Hey, this sounds dumb,” I can protect my own ego. It was someone else’s idea, after all.

If you’re used to writing with quotes, like I am, you’ll notice how difficult it is at first to write without quotes. You need to rely on your own opinion, your own stories, your own lived experiences. 

At some point, it’s inevitable you’ll reference somebody or something that played a part in your life—though you won’t be quoting them. You’ll just be telling a story, or writing your own opinion and thought process. 

You’ll be thinking for yourself, relying on the merit of your hot rhetoric and cool rationale, without any additional quotes to back you up. You’ll see all the bits of your thought process, warts and all.

I had planned on citing the original source of this piece, though the compulsion to make this section consistent with the subhead was stronger than the quote anxiety. (Whew, I’m glad it’s over though!)

Use quotes, don’t let quotes use you

There are great times to use quotes, and I’m not planning to give them up at all. Many of my favorite books are compiled of hundreds of them, including my own Creative Doing. As Cheryl Strayed writes in Brave Enough, “Whenever I need consolation or encouragement, a clear-eyed perspective or a swift kick in the pants—which is often—quotes are what I turn to.” 

Still, every so often, it’s liberating to back up and step away from quotes. Writing is an incredibly flexible art form. You can do whatever you please, with—or without—quotes.

If you enjoyed this article, check out my upcoming book, Creative Doing. You’ll also love my Best of Books newsletter, where I send three of the best books to your inbox every month. Thanks for reading.

One response to “What I Wish I Knew About Quoting Other People In My Writing”

  1. It’s quite popular to take something someone said and then twist it into some valid argument. I mean, if you write blogs regularly, taking other people’s “words” can easily be turned into social proof.

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