What’s the Rule?

What’s the Rule?

By Rory C. Keel

When attending writers groups and conventions, it’s amazing how many times I hear the question, “How much can I quote from other works without breaking copyrights?”

Unfortunately, sometimes they’re really asking, “How much of someone else’s work can I use without paying for it?”

Sure, there are times in writing where we would like to quote or use pieces and incorporate them into our works. It is very important to understand the rules before publishing words that someone else wrote.

Let’s define what we are talking about. First, “plagiarism” means to copy someone else’s words and pass them off as your own. This is always wrong and should never be done. Second, “fair use” means to use a certain percent of someone else’s writings and quote or incorporate them in your work without the need to obtain permission.

Here are a few simple guidelines to help keep you out of trouble.

  1. Chicago Manual of Style states “quotations should not be so long that they diminish the value of the work from which they are taken.”
  2. Some experts say up to three hundred words total can be used with attribution of original author.
  3. As a general rule up to fifty words can be from a magazine article with attribution.
  4. Newspaper articles that are syndicated, under a byline, or individually copyrighted, photographs, artwork, and cartoons will require the permission of the copyright holder.
  5. Ideas are not copyrightable, exact words to express that idea are. You may use an idea inspired by another person’s writing as long as you express it in your own words.
  6. If you only quote a line or two from another work, you should be within the fair use rule and not need permission.

Without being an exhaustive list, these simple guidelines should keep you out of trouble. When using the writings of others, remember the golden rule. If it were your writing being used, how much would you allow?




A New Rule

Okay, class, it’s time to talk about grammar.  Stop groaning. Grammar is very important to a story. Yes, I know it’s boring and I know there are way too many rules for it to be reasonable. However, we’re going to take a new approach.

The accepted guidelines for creative writing today can be found in the Chicago Manual of Style, which is a gigantic tome and anyone who has memorized the whole book deserves a giant pat on the back.  But proper punctuation and noun/verb usage is not necessarily what our lesson is about today.

Today we’re going to talk about creative grammar. Now this is not the license to throw away all the rules in the name of art. In fact, knowing what the rules are is very important to this lesson, and I’m going to add a new rule that will make punctuation become as important to your story as your characters and plot. Ready?


I have read stories where the punctuation and grammar is so perfect that the whole thing is very stiff and formal and unfriendly – and not a lot of fun to read. On the other hand, I have read a few stories where the author uses grammar and punctuation, fonts, italics, all-caps, and bolds almost as characters in the story. These authors have achieved something so mouthwatering that a magic spell is woven that forces the reader to keep reading until they see the words “The End.”

Become friends with grammar and punctuation and let it breathe life into your stories. Don’t be afraid to experiment with its uses—or lack of (as long as you know why)—and watch your story develop a beating heart and start to live.

Congratulations. You have just received a post card from the muse.

Nandy Ekle