For writers, especially non-fiction writers, properly citing your sources is everything. We must give credit where credit is due, or else we lose all trust and credibility as writers. This guideline to citations will help you with the varying levels of works citing, from informal citations to several-pages-long bibliographies. Choosing the way to cite, as well as properly doing so and remaining consistent, will play a significant part in your success as a nonfiction writer. Here is a general guideline to citations and how you as a writer can properly incorporate them into your writing.


The Different Citation Styles
Perhaps one of the reasons citations can prove complicating is because of the sheer volume of options. The citation styles vary depending on topic, audience, genre, form, and so forth. For example, if you attended a university, you likely learned either American Psychological Association (APA) style, Modern Language Association (MLA) style, or Chicago Manual of Style. Many more exist, and you may find yourself using different styles, all depending on your type of writing. Publishing companies also widely differ on style guide use and even publishing companies with the same style guide typically also have a set of publishing house rules that differentiates them from other publishing houses. Most editors use the Chicago Manual of Style as a reference when preparing manuscripts for publication, but in some situations you may use other style systems. Here is a list of the most common citation guides, a brief explanation of them, and their main websites.


Associated Press (AP): The AP style outlines writing rules and restrictions for news writing and journalism. This is a major style guide and what you likely often read because it appears in most media writing. If you are interested in journalism or news writing, this tends to be the correct style guide to follow. For more information, visit the AP official website.

American Psychological Association (APA): Typically employed in the social sciences, the APA style often appears in academia and historical nonfiction. For details on how to apply APA style, visit Owl Purdue or the APA official website.

Chicago Manual of Style: The Chicago Manual of Style serves as the leading resource for editing and formatting publications. As such, if you are writing a nonfiction book, this is likely the style guide you would follow unless otherwise informed. The Chicago Manual of Style has two different systems of citations: the Notes-Bibliography (NB) System and the Author-Date System. These systems are similar in the amount and type of content you include, but they do vary in the formatting and appearance. Generally, the NB System is used in liberal arts and the Author-Date System in humanities. For more information, see either Owl Purdue or the Chicago Manual of Style.

Columbia: The Columbia style guide is rarer and used in more obscure writing sectors, with its main focus being electronic publications. Columbia combines the style guides of humanities, social sciences, and more scientific style guides. The end result is a mix of APA, Chicago, and MLA. To learn more about this style guide and how to use it in your writing, see the Columbia Guide to Online Style Second Edition.

Modern Language Association (MLA): MLA is another common citation system, used primarily in academia, liberal arts, and literary writing. Although not frequently used outside these circles, various systems often incorporate parts of the MLA style guide. For more information, see Owl Purdue or the MLA official website.


In-Text Citations Vs. Bibliographies
There are two main areas where a writer needs to credit other scholars: in-text citations and bibliographies. In-text citations, as the name suggests, appear within the main content of a manuscript. Depending on the style guide used, the in-text citation might be footnotes or parenthetical references. In addition to citing the sources within the manuscript itself, bibliographies or work cited pages are almost always included at the end of the manuscript. Again, the formatting and content of the bibliography/work cited page depends on the style guide followed. Although on occasion a writer may only use in-text citations or bibliographies, in practically all forms of nonfiction you will need to insert both.


At the end of the day it all comes down to consistency. Most readers do not notice the style guide system you use, and that is what you are aiming for. You do not want the citations to stick out to readers apart from providing context information. If you use footnotes on one page and parenthetical references on the next, the readers will likely notice something is off. So, overall, do your research and pick the style guide that best fits your audience and genre. If you are working with an editor or publishing company, seek their opinion and expertise. Then, once you have established a working system, do not deter from it. Many of the style guides will likely work just fine in your writing, and a number of them overlap, but once you decide, stay consistent.

Like my guideline to citations? Take a look at my guide on semicolons.