Referencing and quoting

Disclaimer: I AM A PUBLISHER NOT A LAWYER! If you have any concerns over your own or others’ use of copyright material, get qualified legal advice. 

But I have spent a long time dealing with copyright issues and authors’ nervousness about using other people’s material. One question that keeps coming up in my bootcamp and from clients is the best way to cite sources and references when you’re writing a book for a business or general audience, rather than an academic paper.

Most people get why it matters:

1.     it demonstrates your research and awareness of thinking in the field,

2.     it allows you to show how your ideas fit with what’s already out there and how they extend, adapt or build on concepts readers are already familiar with

3.     you want your readers to know and love the books that you know and love (all writers are readers, and all readers love saying to other readers ‘Here, read this book!’) – books are not like toothbrushes or mobile phones, you don’t just need one.

4.     it’s common courtesy to credit those whose ideas have influenced you.

But how to do it without disturbing the flow of your own story with asides and footnotes and parentheses?

Firstly, don’t go mad. We all swim in the same sea of ideas and cultural literacy. You probably can’t remember the first time you heard the term ‘work-life balance’, or picked up the idea that building resilience is an important part of self-development. You don’t need to reference broad concepts like that.

But if you use a distinctive phrase or concept that has a traceable provenance, which is clearly associated with an individual, you need to credit them. You can do this with a light touch in text: ‘Steve Peters famously described the warring factions in our minds as the Chimp, the Human and the Computer, but maybe there’s another element at work…’ And then you can simply include The Chimp Paradox in your bibliography, listing full title and subtitle, author name, publisher and date of publication.

If you prefer a more academic flavour, you can put the reference in parentheses too: ‘(Peters, 2012)’.

But if it’s not a matter of identifying an idea that you’re building on, but more a case of citing specific statistics or research findings, it makes sense to identify the source on the spot using a footnote, so that the reader who likes to check facts and figures can do so easily. ‘It’s completely unacceptable that more than 300,000 women die every year in childbirth[1]…’ or ‘Incredibly, between June and August 2016 the figure for adults in work was at 74.5%, its highest since records began in 1971.[2]

Finally, what about quoting others? You can use short quotations from others’ work in text without their express permission – there’s an exception to copyright law that allows you to use other people’s material for the purposes of ‘quotation, criticism or review’ (and criticism here means analysis of their argument in the broadest sense, not necessarily criticizing it negatively!). By law you need to provide full attribution, and you’ll also want to include the work cited in your bibliography, but usually you don’t need permission to include it. If you’re using song lyrics or lines of poetry things get more tricky – avoid this if possible as rightsholder tend to be stickier. There’s a useful guide at

Don’t be afraid of using other people’s ideas. Just do it generously and fairly, and make sure you’re saying something that takes the conversation further. 

[1] Source: World Health Organization website, (accessed 17 October 2016)