Real advice for real writers (and those who want to become one)

Citing your Sources: Bibliographies, Footnotes, and More

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m in the final months of grad school, so if there’s one thing I can do in my sleep, it’s format my footnotes.

While in academics you often need to cite a source for nearly every new idea introduced in your work so as not to plagiarize, it can be tempting to think that non-academic writing doesn’t need source citations. Although this may be the case for certain genres, I suspect there are many times when giving credit is more necessary than we think.

The most important question when it comes to citing your sources is to know what kind of material you are attempting to write. Your genre will most likely determine what, if any, kinds of citations you need. For many authors, this doesn’t warrant a second thought: poetry, children’s stories, cookbooks, novels, etc. all tend to be pretty straightforward.[1] But there are times when the lines becomes less clear: you may find yourself writing, for example, a magazine article in which you quote someone else’s research, or a study guide to a book of the Bible that is influenced by a few specific theologians. What should you do in these cases?

By way of an answer, consider another basic question: to whom are you writing? If the purpose of your material is to introduce readers to a relatively new field of thought, such as how digital technology influences our humanity, you may need to spend some time defining terms or concepts from reliable sources. For example, if one of your chapters lays groundwork for the rest of the book by synthesizing relevant statistics or research, citations probably will be necessary. This is where endnotes or footnotes can come in.[2]

On the flip side, if you’re writing to reinvigorate an ancient idea, such as how Augustine’s Confessions speak to our postmodern concerns, you will probably want to give a nod, even if brief, to the centuries of writers before you who treated this same work. And here’s where a bibliography can offer your reader two things: acknowledging others’ ideas tells them you are trustworthy, and it gives them a valuable resource for further information on your topic.

When you answer the question of your audience, you can begin to narrow down what kind of reference material will be most serviceable to the reader. You may choose an index if readers will want to access specific pages of a topic or term throughout your work, or you may find a bibliography most manageable if you only want to reference a short list of influential material. Different citation styles abound, and a helpful starting place to figuring out how or if you should cite sources is to look at other books in the same genre as yours and see what their authors did.[3] As well, don’t overlook your humble word processor: Microsoft Word’s software is built to make organizing information a breeze, and all you have to do is look in the references tab to create automated (and customizable) indexes, footnotes, tables, bibliographies, and more.

And finally, I often have to remind myself of the larger picture when I get mired in footnotes: while citing your sources can help your reader and enhance your credibility, it also contributes to a vital web of communication between authors and thinkers. When you acknowledge that someone else’s work has influenced your own, you are reminded that ideas and stories don’t happen in a vacuum, but within a community, whether that be with authors who died centuries ago or the people in your writing group. We express our gratitude, however implicitly, when we point to the work of those who have formed our thoughts and imaginations, and this is the most beautiful part of citing our sources.

[1] If, however, you style yourself after the greats of Russian literature and have many long and complex names for each character in your novel, you may want to provide a character list at the beginning to help readers out.

[2] Footnotes go at the bottom of each page; endnotes go either at the end of each chapter or at the end of the book in a separate section.

[3] As well, the Chicago Manual of Style, while daunting in size, is a supremely well-organized resource for many different genres and is worth a flip through if you want to get citation formatting ideas. They’ll tell you all the nitty-gritty stuff like spacing, tabs, capitalization, page numbers, and more.

Have a question about citing sources in your work? Leave a comment for Elisabeth below!

#writingskills #research

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