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Q: Writing: how to use names of famous people, stories.. ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   0 Comments )
Subject: Writing: how to use names of famous people, stories..
Category: Reference, Education and News
Asked by: thehambloke-ga
List Price: $20.00
Posted: 23 Nov 2006 11:41 PST
Expires: 23 Dec 2006 11:41 PST
Question ID: 785105
I'm working on a book manuscript (non-academic work) and want to
mention the stories of some famous people, and other famous stories.
For example, the life of Abraham Lincoln - talk about his failures and
successses, which are well known. There are many sources of such
information, nothing is being quoted directly. Mostly general facts.

Do I need to cite the sources of such information? At what point is
such information "general knowledge"? Any related advice you can
provide would be helpful.
Subject: Re: Writing: how to use names of famous people, stories..
Answered By: sublime1-ga on 23 Nov 2006 14:34 PST
Rated:5 out of 5 stars

Although you're writing a non-adademic work, the guidelines for
authoring a book are not essentially different than those for
writing an academic paper, for which the concept of "general
knowledge" is fairly well defined, as on this page about how
to avoid plagiarism on the Western Carolina University Writing
Center site:

"You are generally not required to document standard dictionary
 definitions of words or the background information about subjects
 and persons you discover in encyclopedia articles, a category of
 information called common knowledge. Exact wording, though, is
 never free, so if you quote word for word from the dictionary
 or encyclopedia (never a good idea anyway), you must accurately
 document your source (see How To Quote). You are not required
 to document definitions or common knowledge if you reword the
 original (see How To Paraphrase), a choice that demonstrates
 your understanding of the subject. Common knowledge includes
 facts, dates, and events over which there is no debate, for
 example, the various battle sites in the Civil War or the fact
 that Renoir was a French Impressionist painter. You may be
 learning the information for the first time, but no one is
 going to argue over whether the information is accurate or
 not. In other words, 'common' knowledge does not belong to
 any one writer in particular."
More on the page:

However, some authors may feel less obligated to live up to
academic standards, and publishers may agree, depending on the
topic and the target audience, as evidenced by this page about
submission guidelines for Impact Publishers with regard to
writing on the topic of pyschological self-help - something
with which I'm familiar, having worked in the field of mental
health for 25+ years, and having written handouts for clients:

"...keep your audience in mind, and remember that writing
 self-help is like talking to clients, but it's not the same.
 In a book, you must spell everything out clearly, simply,
 and completely. You won't be there for your readers to ask

In "talking to clients", I would never interrupt the flow
of my meaning by stopping to cite the source of the theory
or psychological discipline from which a technique may have
originated. For example, if I were writing about how to 
perform a "progressive relaxation" exercise with which I
was personally very familiar, I'm not going to interrupt
the flow of the topic by telling the client (in a personal
session) who first originated the exercise (if I can even
remember without having to look it up). In writing about the
same exercise, I would maintain the same style as though
I was talking to them in person. I *might* make a note
referencing the originator of the exercise, but I would not
include it at the bottom of the page, as this would distract
the reader from the flow of the writing. Rather I would put
it in a collection of footnotes at the end of the book.

Keeping your audience in mind, as well as the purpose you
have in presenting the material, is the key to successful
use of references. If your purpose is to bring the reader
into a reflective state of mind (inspiration), or to
entertain them by drawing them into a semi-dream state by
telling a story, footnotes on the page and excessive
references could be counter-productive.

If, on the other hand, you're trying to make a point and
draw a conclusion about the significance of a historical
figure and their thoughts and behaviors, and if the points
you're making are likely to be contested by a significant
portion of your audience (targetted or not), it would be
best to include references to the writers and sources
that went into shaping such conclusions, as noted in the
first link. See the section on 'WHAT YOU DO NEED TO DOCUMENT':

A good collection of resources regarding citations is found
on this page from The University of Washington Library:

A list of what should generally be cited is found on the
TurnItIn website:

"Whenever you borrow words or ideas, you need to acknowledge
 their source. The following situations almost always require
- Whenever you use quotes
- Whenever you paraphrase
- Whenever you use an idea that someone else has already expressed
- Whenever you make specific reference to the work of another
- Whenever someone else's work has been critical in developing your
  own ideas."

But, again, these are academic standards, and your publisher and
you will want to consider the purpose of the writing, the nature
of the topic, the audience, and the intended effect of the writing
on the reader in deciding how much citation is desirable, and the
form it should take.

If you have any questions, please post a Request for Clarification.


Additional information may be found from further exploration
of the links provided above, as well as those resulting from
the Google searches outlined below.

Searches done, via Google:

book writing citing anecdotal "common knowledge"

writing guidelines non-academic book

Request for Answer Clarification by thehambloke-ga on 23 Nov 2006 18:48 PST
Sublime - thanks for your response.

What about mentioning famous people's names? For example, I want to
mention some facts relating to Thor Bjorgolfsson (general facts like
his entrepreneurial endeavors,

Another example, the story of the founders of BarCharts

Does one need to contact them to get their permission to mention their
names and stories? What kind of general rules apply?

Clarification of Answer by sublime1-ga on 24 Nov 2006 12:20 PST

I would consider Wikipedia to be the internet equivalent of a
well-known encyclopedia. A search for "Thor Bjorgolfsson" 
returns 590 unique results, including an entry in Wikipedia,
so I would consider the facts surrounding him to be "common
knowledge", as it would be easy for a reader to Google him,
or look up more about him at the library.

On the other hand, a search for "Bobbie Ford" and barcharts
turns up only 5 unique results, none in Wikipedia, and some
in copyrighted articles, so I would not consider this to be
"common knowledge", and would consider it a courtesy, as
well as an obligation, to provide a reference of some kind
to one or more of the very limited number of resources you
had to use to arrive at the information you're presenting,
allowing your readers to pursue the story further.

As for contacting the people themselves, you only need to
obtain their permission if you are directly quoting a
significant amount of text from a copyrighted article they
have written.

On the 'About Us' page from the BarCharts website, there is
no copyright symbol or date, or any indication that they
would object to the information being circulated. Still, 
if you directly quoted a significant portion of the page,
it would be best to obtain permission and provide a citation
indicating at least the webpage, if not more, per the formal
guidelines given by the Western Carolina University Writing

"For an http:// source: Record whatever is available and
 pertinent from the following list: author, title, date of
 print publication, and original page numbers (if given);
 title of the database (for example, Academic Search Elite
 or LEXIS/NEXIS); publication medium (for example, CD-ROM);
 name of vendor (if given, EBSCO, for example); electronic
 publication date; date you located the information; and
 complete web address."

If you're only paraphrasing a few facts, it would not be
technically necessary to cite the source, but since there
is so little information about the Fords and BarCharts,
the information isn't truly "common knowledge", and it
would be a courtesy to the reader to include a simple 
citation in case they wish to explore the topic further.

If you wanted to quote even a small portion of the article
by Marcia Heroux Pounds on the SRA Research Group site,
which turns up in the Google search for "Bobbie Ford" and
barcharts, this would be a different matter. The article
is copyrighted 2002 by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel at
the bottom of the page, and permission is recommended, and
absolutely required if more than a small portion is quoted:

And again, you could paraphrase the facts presented
without providing a citation, but since the story of
BarCharts is not truly "common knowledge", it would be
both proper and courteous to provide the source for the

When you are dealing with clearly-labelled copyrighted text,
whether or not you need to obtain permission is determined
by a "fair use" law which is discussed on this page from the
US Copyright Office website, which is somewhat vague:

"The distinction between 'fair use' and infringement may be
 unclear and not easily defined. There is no specific number
 of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without
 permission. Acknowledging the source of the copyrighted
 material does not substitute for obtaining permission."

So it's often best to err on the side of safety, and obtain 
permission for relatively small portions of quoted material.
Realistically, however, it's unlikely that a copyright owner
would come after an author who quoted a couple of lines of
copyrighted text and provided an accurate citation. Still,
you're better safe than sorry.

If you're primarily reporting facts that can likely be found
elsewhere, rather than opinions with conclusions, or lines of
a wonderfully-worded summation, the easiest thing to do is
paraphrase or summarize a copyrighted article, and provide a
citation, in which case permission is not needed.

See the sections on 'HOW TO SUMMARIZE' and 'HOW TO PARAPHRASE'
on the Western Carolina University Writing Center page:

I hope that clears things up, but if you have further questions,
please post a Request for Clarification.


Searches done, via Google:

"Thor Bjorgolfsson"

barcharts "Bobbie Ford"

fair use law
thehambloke-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars
Researcher provided needed info.

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