Tracking and Citing References for Your Nonfiction Book

Cristen Iris

*originally posted spring 2017, updated 2019

Before we dig into the nuts and bolts of tracking and citing sources, it's important to understand the legal and reputational risks you face as an author, particularly if you write nonfiction.

Related: Jill Abramson: Ex-New York Times editor accused of plagiarism; 'I Fell Short': Jill Abramson Responds To Charges Of Plagiarism, Inaccuracies; What the Jill Abramson book scandal tells us about publishing’s fact-checking problem

What follows is an explanation of how to track and cite your sources per Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), which is the publishing industry's style guide. Citing sources per CMS does not release you from legal obligations you may have or necessarily reduce liability. I highly recommend that you consult with an attorney who specializes in copyright law and read these articles by attorney Brad Frazer.

Related: 5 Things Nonfiction Authors Can Get Sued For, It's the First $50K That Kills You, and Is It Fair Use? 7 Questions to Ask Before Using Copyrighted Material

Properly citing your sources is not only ethical, it enhances your reader’s experience. The purpose of citations is to give credit where credit is due and allow readers to test assertions and interpretations against their original sources.

You and/or your editor may choose from one of several citation options (see videos below for more information), but it’s your responsibility to track and provide to your editor or publisher all the necessary information to cite your sources according to publishing industry standards.

I designed this post and my Citation Tracking Spreadsheet to keep you organized during the writing process. (Email me with "Citation Tracking Spreadsheet Request" in the subject line, and I'll send you a copy.)

Include enough information in your manuscript for us to be able to match your reference to the citation information on your spreadsheet.

For example, when you quote, paraphrase, or refer to the work (written or otherwise) of another person or organization, you may simply put the author’s last name or name of the website in parentheses and add the required information to the spreadsheet. That will allow your editor to properly format the citations.

NOTE: You must cite the original source of a quote or idea. (Video: The Importance of Citing Original Sources)


  1. Determine your specific risks (by consulting with an attorney) and understand what constitutes Fair Use.
  2. Wikipedia can be a good place to start your research, but it is neither an original source nor is the information found there reliable. Test the accuracy of the information you find by seeking authoritative sources, and follow the trail to its original source.
  3. Track your sources from the earliest possible point in your writing process. Doing so from the beginning will save you a tremendous amount of time and enhance your professional image.
  4. Images and other graphics must also be referenced. Unless you've purchased a license to use them, they must be in the public domain and free for commercial (they vary as to whether you will be required to attribute them to the creator or if you may use them without attribution). The Internet itself is not public domain. is an excellent source of images that are often free for commercial use with no attribution required. For the sake of transparency, I recommend citing them even if not required to do so. (Use the author or URL column on my tracking spreadsheet and add “CC0 Public Domain.”)
  5. OWL Purdue Online Writing Lab is an excellent resource with explanations and specific citation examples. Remember, the publishing industry standard is Chicago Manual of Style (CMS).


The image below is an example of how one might appear in the body of your manuscript. Note that the image has a name and source information, so your editor can properly identify it and connect its citation information in the notes section and in the bibliography found in the back matter of the book and an in-text citation (Pixabay, Happy Puppy).

Happy Puppy (Pixabay)

Happy Puppy (Pixabay)

This is how the citation should* appear in the bibliography.

Pixabay. Wow_Pho. CC0 Public Domain. Accessed 19 March 2017.

*NOTE: If you look at page 7 of OWL’s Citation Chart, you’ll notice that my citation doesn’t match the CMS example.

  1. The second line should be indented, but my version of WordPress won't allow me to do it (or I lack the knowledge to make it happen).
  2. This image does not have a name.
  3. Many users upload images onto Pixabay (Wow_Pho being just one), so listing the author or contributor's name (Wow_Pho) would be confusing for anyone trying to find the source. It would also look unprofessional in this case since Wow_Pho is obviously a username, not the contributor's real name. The goal is clarity, which sometimes requires deviations style (as long as we include all the required information).
  4. Technically, since this image is in the public domain, free from commercial use, and no attribution is required, I am not required to cite it. However, due to widespread disregard for the copyrights of others, whenever I see an image, quote, or other reference that isn’t cited, I assume it’s being used without permission. Professionally minded authors and students can demonstrate respect for the work of others and a commitment to our craft by citing every source.
  5. CMS does not require the date a website or web page was accessed, but I’ve included it in my citation because recently a question came up regarding a source one of my clients used. She’s very thorough but hadn’t noted one important piece of information. When she went back to the website, the page had been edited. She could not find the exact location of the information she’d cited. It could not, therefore, be verified. (I won't go into detail now about why that matters. If you're curious, ask me about it when you request my citation tracking spreadsheet.)

Tracking sources from the beginning streamlines the writing and editing process, can help when it comes time to request permission to use copyrighted material, helps you look like a professional, and adds value for your readers.


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Photo by Davide Cantelli on Unsplash

Cristen Iris
WriteNow, LLC