You’ve been hard at work creating an original nonfiction book. You’ve come up with new ideas, and your labors have resulted in a unique contribution to knowledge, which will inform and guide readers as they encounter challenges you’ve experienced, thought hard about, and researched.
It’s clear to you how much you owe to your sources of knowledge, and you hope your readers will go on to deepen their understanding of the topic by looking to some of the exemplary resources you’ve drawn from.
In order to do this, you’ll need to provide them with a clear path to finding these resources. To this end, you’ll cite your sources and create an organized bibliography, works cited, reference list, or notes section.
When we go through manuscripts here at CYC, the margins are cluttered with terse comments like “Source?” and “Citation needed.”
We’re making these notes for practical reasons that bear on the usefulness of your work and your credibility as an author.
Anytime you use someone else’s idea or appeal to their work to support a point, you should cite them as a source. This rule includes:
For example, if you stated that Western society is dominated by democratic forms of government, there’s no need to offer a source. If, however, you claimed that Western governments are controlled by a secret association of elite business interests, sources are needed to support this uncommon claim. The same would apply to obscure technical or scientific data.
In most nonfiction works, authors use endnotes to cite their sources, which means they use superscript numbers to indicate a note in the main text of the book. Take this excerpt from the first chapter of Ron Chernow’s bestselling Alexander Hamilton:
When Chernow quotes from Benjamin Franklin, he wants his reader to know where he’s pulling his quote from, so he indicates there is a note on the quotation by superscripting the number one (1) after Franklin’s reflections on the wealth of the West Indies. In the first endnote to this chapter, the first note will state exactly where in Franklin’s writings Chernow found these words.
Should I always give a page number?
It’s definitely best-practice to do so. As an academic historian, Chernow gives a page, section, or paragraph number to help his reader find exactly where Franklin’s words appear in his source. Being as precise as possible in the information you provide is a real help to readers, who might want to use your work as a guide for their own research. Note: Typically, it’s not necessary to provide specific citations for epigraphs (i.e. opening quotations to chapters or books).
In Google Docs, you can include a footnote by clicking on “Insert” and selecting “footnote” from the dropdown menu. Google Docs doesn’t currently have an endnotes function, but you can do it manually by inserting superscript numbers by clicking “Format” and selecting superscript from the dropdown menu. You’ll then have to make your own corresponding endnotes section at the end of the text. In Word, just click “References” and you’ll see the buttons for inserting either footnotes or endnotes automatically.
Many nonfiction books today don’t have a standard bibliography, sources, references, or works cited section. However, they will usually have a notes section. The notes in these sections typically contain bibliographic information alongside more detailed commentary on sources’ relevance to the ideas under discussion.
The notes section is a flexible means of giving your reader access to the sources you’re referring to while adding value to your book through the broader commentary the notes themselves allow for.
For instance, multiple nonfiction titles among the top New York Times Bestsellers only include a notes section, wherein sources’ bibliographic details are combined with notes providing information about the source or topic that don’t easily fit into the main part of the book.
If you choose to go with a notes section, you may still want to include a bibliography, which allows your reader to quickly find the last name of important authors you reference by skimming through an alphabetized list.
For source citation in either a bibliography or a notes section, you’ll still need to gather together some basic information.
The Essentials of Nonfiction Source Information
This guide is not a rehash of your freshman composition course guides to academic writing styles, which would amount to a précis of the citation rules of the American Psychological Association (APA), Modern Language Association (MLA), and Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) guidelines. Nevertheless, these manuals are useful templates for isolating what information is most important in a citation of a given source. In other words, what information will help readers readily find your sources for themselves.
Most nonfiction works use APA style as a general guideline for citing sources. Here’s what’s included in a typical APA citation of a book source, as it appears in the style’s prescribed References section:
Cain, S. (2012). Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. New York, NY: Random House.
As this example indicates, the essentials for finding the book are: the author’s name, date of publication, title (always put titles of books in italics and titles of articles and chapters in quotations), city of publication, and the publishing house.
This crucial information is ordered below to indicate each element’s relative importance:
The nice thing about fitting your citations to a particular style (APA, MLA, or CMS) is that they are consistent, so your reader will have no problem knowing where to look to find the date or publisher. Obviously, though, being organized doesn’t necessarily mean following someone else’s rules.
For example, take this excerpt from the notes section of Susan Cain’s Quiet. Though it always gives enough information to find a source, it doesn’t strictly follow a particular academic style guide in doing so.
In the first note, Cain gives a source text for the account of historical events her opening illustration provides in the introduction. Though most people know who Rosa Parks is, Cain takes the time to provide the reader with the historian she has used as an authority in the relation of the familiar civil rights story. She provides:
She goes on to augment this information, and add value to the main argument of her book, by countering anticipated objections and reflecting upon some details of her research that did not easily fit into the flow of her main argument.
The second note gives the source of a quotation. It is careful to indicate who actually said the words quoted and explains that the author of the article is not the speaker. After giving the name of the author, the title of the article in quotations, and the magazine it appears in, Cain provides the date, which is essential if the reader wishes to look the article up and read it firsthand. Notice, too, how Cain parenthetically qualifies how she’s using the quote in her work. This is an example of the subtle utility a notes section brings to nonfiction works, which depend on attention to detail to maintain their credibility with readers.
In the third note, Cain is supporting a statement of fact about the way people exercise. She has made a claim that is not considered common knowledge, so she must support it with scientific evidence. She does this by providing two supporting sources complete with:
The first source is a chapter from a scholarly book on psychobiology. Because the chapter appears in a book, she gives the city and publishing house. She also helps the reader by providing the page number that the information she is citing appears on. The second source is an article in a scholarly journal. Making this source easy to look up means including seven details, which Cain provides:
Note: When citing a journal article, it’s not necessary to give the city and publishing house information.
At CYC, the arcana of formatting a bibliography is one of our specialties, and we’re happy to do it for our authors. However, there’s some basic information that we need to make sure the bibliography or notes section looks professional and serves your readers. You should make sure to include these things, at a bare minimum, for your own bibliographies and notes sections.
The absolutely essential pieces of information for each source are:
If you provide this basic information, you will ensure your reference section is organized, consistent, and–more importantly–useful to your readers.
When he’s not refining prose and hunting down grammatical errors, Ben Barber reads paper books from brick libraries, traps Dungeness crab, brews beer, and stalks inspiration through temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. His graduate degrees in English Literature have honed his editorial eye, while teaching him the importance of respecting the author’s unique voice. Feel free to drop him a line if you’re interested in discussing the nuances of semicolon usage, the metaphysics of the late-Romantic poets, Spinoza’s third type of knowledge, or recipes for baby back ribs.