Tips for Using Chicago Style in Nonfiction Writing

Implementing Chicago style in nonfiction writing can greatly enhance the quality and professionalism of your work. In this blog post, we'll provide valuable tips to help you navigate its nuances effectively.

When it comes to nonfiction writing, adhering to a consistent and recognized style guide is essential for maintaining clarity and credibility. The Chicago Manual of Style (CMoS) is one of the most widely used style guides in the publishing industry, known for its comprehensive and versatile guidelines. 

Whether you are a professional writer, academic researcher, or aspiring author, understanding and implementing Chicago style can greatly enhance the quality and professionalism of your nonfiction writing. 

In this blog post, we will explore some valuable tips to help you effectively apply Chicago style (17th ed.) in your work.

Understand the Basics

Before diving into the nuances of Chicago style, it is important to grasp the foundational principles. You can find the full guide online (subscription required for full access) or use the print version—but make sure you’re using the most up-to-date edition (as of this writing, we use the seventeenth edition).

Familiarize yourself with the primary components of CMoS, such as the formatting of titles, headings, page numbers, and margins (a good place to start is Purdue University’s OWL guide). Pay attention to details like capitalization, punctuation, and the proper use of italics and quotation marks. By developing a strong foundation in the basic elements, you can establish a consistent style throughout your work.

Choose the Right Citation Style

Determine which citation style is most appropriate for your nonfiction writing project. Chicago style offers two citation formats, each with their own ways of organizing information: the notes and bibliography system (often used in the humanities) and the author-date system (popular in the sciences and social sciences). 

The notes and bibliography system employs footnotes or endnotes to cite sources, while the author-date system incorporates in-text citations that are associated with a reference list. If you choose foot- or endnotes, you might forgo the bibliography, whereas in-text citations necessitate a reference list. Be sure to check with your publisher before deciding which style to use.

Understanding and implementing the appropriate citation style will ensure the accurate and consistent attribution of your sources. (Bonus: Use a citation manager to keep track of your sources!) It’s also in important concern when designing any publication.

Master the Art of Footnotes and Endnotes

If you decide to use the notes and bibliography system, it is crucial to understand the proper format and structure of footnotes and endnotes. When citing a source for the first time, provide the full reference, including the author’s name, title, publication information, and page number. For subsequent citations of the same source, use a shortened form (careful, CMoS no longer prefers ibid). 

Ensure that your footnotes or endnotes are numbered consecutively throughout your text and correspond accurately to the relevant citations. If you’re using tracked changes, sometimes you’ll need to make sure that all of the changes to the notes are accepted in order to check the numbering system.

Create a Comprehensive Bibliography

In addition to footnotes and endnotes, Chicago style requires a comprehensive bibliography. This list should include all the sources you have cited or consulted during your research (although some references, like social media posts, might not need to be included). 

Arrange the entries alphabetically by the author’s last name. Each entry should contain complete bibliographic information, including the author’s name, title, publication details, and relevant page numbers. By meticulously compiling a well-organized bibliography, you demonstrate your commitment to thorough research and provide readers with the means to locate your sources.

Pay Attention to Quotations and Paraphrasing

When incorporating direct quotations into your nonfiction writing, adhere to Chicago style guidelines for quotation marks and citation placement. Enclose all direct quotations within double quotation marks, while single quotation marks are reserved for quotes within quotes. Block quotations, which are indented from the body text, don’t use quotation marks, but still need to include citations.

Ensure that the citation for each quotation is provided in either the text or notes, depending on your chosen citation style. When paraphrasing or summarizing ideas from a source, attribute the information to its original author and provide the appropriate citation.

Maintain Consistency in Style and Formatting

Consistency is key to presenting a polished and professional piece of nonfiction writing. Be diligent in maintaining consistency in areas such as capitalization, italics, abbreviations, and numbering. Chicago style offers specific guidelines for these elements, and adhering to them throughout your work enhances readability and avoids confusion for your readers. 

Consistency also extends to your citation style, ensuring that your references are formatted consistently within footnotes, endnotes, and the bibliography.

Utilize Resources and Tools

Implementing Chicago style can be made easier by utilizing available resources and tools. The Chicago Manual of Style itself is an invaluable reference, providing detailed explanations and examples for various aspects of nonfiction writing. Online style guides, citation generators, and writing software can also assist in applying Chicago style correctly. 

Take advantage of these resources to streamline the implementation process and enhance the overall quality of your nonfiction writing.


In nonfiction writing, adhering to a recognized style guide such as The Chicago Manual of Style is crucial for maintaining professionalism and consistency. By understanding the basics, choosing the appropriate citation style, mastering footnotes and endnotes, creating a comprehensive bibliography, and paying attention to quotations and paraphrasing, you can effectively implement Chicago style in your work. 

Additionally, maintaining consistency in style and formatting and utilizing available resources and tools will aid you in applying Chicago style correctly. 

By following these tips, you can ensure that your nonfiction writing adheres to the highest standards, enhancing readability and establishing your credibility as an author or researcher.

Want help implementing Chicago Style in your writing?

The editors at Flatpage can help you with that. We're experts at Chicago (and other styles), including maintaining consistency in the body of your text and formatting citations. We offer both copyediting and citation editing services. Learn more about our manuscript editing services by clicking below.

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About the author

Cara Jordan is chief editor and president at Flatpage. She has spent her career editing academic and artists' writings, primarily as a developmental editor and copyeditor. She received her PhD in art history from the Graduate Center, CUNY.


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