Documenting Nonfiction


When you write a nonfiction picture book, a biography (of any length) or other nonfiction topics, how much do you document? Do you use end notes, foot notes, or what?

Well-Documented Nonfiction Sells a Manuscript

Original Sources. You should use as many original or primary sources as possible. Go back to the original diary, the first photographs, the newspaper account of the time, letters, etc. I’m not talking here about how/where to research, but it’s worth saying that nonfiction for kids relied on original research.

The documentation of primary sources, though, is harder than with published resources. When I taught Freshman Composition, I told my students to put in more information than you think necessary. The main thing that documentation does is to let your reader know how they, too, might access that documentation to check your facts, or to dig deeper. If in doubt about “proper” documentation, look up the MLA or APA formats; my students liked using Easy Bib, an online service that will ask for infomation and return it properly formatted. If you are at a place where you can’t look it up, then record more than you think necessary. If you have found an original diary, then include everything you can about the diary: beginning date, ending date, # of entries, location that the diary was written, name of author, maiden name of women author, birth date and death date if available, and anything else about your access to it that seems important.

Be sure to document everything: written text, photographs, objects, film, recording, websites, multimedia, etc. Everything.

Writing the Manuscript. Make sure that as you write the manuscript, you are noting when and where you draw information from the source. I prefer to keep an ongoing bibliography and then follow the MLA format of adding the author’s last name and page number at the point where the info occurs.

Nonfiction should use original sources for information (Pattison).

Submitting the Manuscript. Ah, here’s where things get tricky. If you’re working with an editor and can ask preferences, do that. Endnote, footnote, in-text citation – it’s a matter of personal preference or house preference and should be followed if you know it.

If you don’t know, then pick one method that seems reasonable, given your topic and your research, and stick with it. Then, in the cover letter, explain what you’ve done. That’s it. Don’t stress out over this or try to go into too much explanation or apologize for the method of presentation. Just be straight forward about what you’ve done and if the publishing house is interested, they can ask you to re-format the revision a different way.

Creative Non-fiction. What if you write creative non-fiction and it reads like fiction and you don’t want those footnotes to interrupt the flow of the story. Then, you have two choices: the least intrusive method of documentation is end notes, where you put a super-numeral at the position the documentation is appropriate and at the end of a chapter or the end of the manuscript, you list the end notes.

OR, you can send in two versions of the manuscript, one with no documentation and one with documentation. That would give the editor the option of which to read and some editors would choose one, some the other.

Basically, do the original research, document the research, document the places in the manuscript where the documentation is used, and format either to an editor/publishing houses specifications, or if that is unknown, then the method that seems most reasonable. Then, submit.

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