Citation Best Practices for Nonfiction

Writing nonfiction often requires authors to use citations throughout their book. A citation is a formal way of giving credit for material used or referenced from another source, such as a book, journal, or website. Understanding citation best practices for nonfiction, including why, when, and how to use citations, will help you create a book that is ethically and legally sound.

Why use citations

  • It's the law: Copyright law protects people's work. Using too much of someone's work without giving them credit violates the law.
  • It helps your readers: Your readers may wish to explore concepts or facts mentioned in your book. By properly using citations, your readers can easily find and read the original material.
  • It's the right thing to do: Don't steal other people's work. Give credit where it's due.

When to use citations in nonfiction

The best practice for nonfiction writers is to cite any of the following material:

  • Direct quote: Cite the reference whenever text from another source appears in your book.
  • Paraphrase: When you rely heavily on another source, even if it's not a direct quote, you should cite the reference.
  • Springboard idea: Include a citation for any idea or concept that you use as a springboard to develop your own ideas and theories.
  • Obscure fact: When mentioning a fact that's hard for readers to verify, it's helpful to cite where you obtained the information.

How to cite sources in a nonfiction book

There are many ways to cite references in a book. When choosing a style, consider your book's genre and your publisher's preference. If you're unsure which style is appropriate, research books similar to yours and note which citation style is used most.

Here are some common citation styles:

Chicago Manual of Style, notes and bibliography citation system:

  • Uses a combination of footnotes or endnotes (or both) and a bibliography.
  • Preferred in book publishing for historical books, literature, and the arts.

Chicago Manual of Style, author-date citation system:

  • Uses in-text notes set in parentheses that list the author and publication date of the source.
  • Includes a corresponding reference list with full bibliographies.
  • Common style in the sciences, including physical, natural, and social sciences.
  • Reference The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th Edition for both Chicago-styles.

Modern Language Association citation style (MLA):

  • Uses in-text citations of the author's name and page number set in parentheses.
  • Includes a works cited list at the end of the manuscript or article.
  • Preferred by scholars, journals, academic presses.
  • Reference the MLA Handbook, Eighth Edition.

American Psychological Association citation style (APA):

American Medical Association citation style (AMA):

  • Uses in-text superscripted numbers and a corresponding numbered list of references at the end of the book or article.
  • Preferred style for journal articles, books, and research papers in the medical field.
  • Follow the details explained in AMA Manual of Style, 10th Edition.

When citations are not enough

Sometimes it's not enough to simply give credit for sourced material—you may need to obtain permission from the copyright holder. In some cases, even if you're only quoting a small amount of text, you still may need to ask permission. It's not always about the amount of content that you use, but the percentage of the total work. Another consideration is specifically which part you quote. For example, if you quote the heart of the work, even if it's just one line from a book, you may need to seek permission.

  • Ask permission especially when quoting the following:
  • Poem or song lyrics of more than a couple of lines
  • Article or short work of more than a few sentences
  • Book content of more than 500 words
  • Unpublished material, such as e-mails, text messages, or letters of any length

Follow the citation best practices for nonfiction

By understanding the best practices for citations in nonfiction, you can create a book that is helpful to your readers and meets the expectations of publishers and the academic community. When you are familiar with how to cite sources from the beginning, you can stay organized and avoid the headache of tracking down sources after you've written your manuscript.

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  • Hi there, Im in the final stages of publishing my book but have used several famous quotes from Einstein and Erkhart Tolle.  I have sent several emails to their trustees however have not yet received a reply.  These few quotes lead into the content of several chapters of the book and without the permission to use them I will have to restructure a significant amount of my writing.  Any information or advice on how I can get around this roadblock would be much appreciated.  Thank you. Natalie

    Albert Einstein

    1. “We cant solve problems using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
    2. “Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school. It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”
    3. “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”

    Erkhart Tolle

    1. As long as the egoic mind is running your life, you cannot truly be at ease; you cannot be at peace or fulfilled except for brief intervals when you obtained what you wanted, when a craving has just been fulfilled. Since the ego is a derived sense of self, it needs to identify with external things. It needs to be both defended and fed constantly. The most common ego identifications have to do with possessions, the work you do, social status and recognition, knowledge and education physical appearance, special abilities, relationships, person and family history, belief systems, and often political, nationalistic, racial, religious, and other collective identifications. None of these is you.
  • This is very helpful.  I didn't realize that I had to permission to quote song lyrics.