I'm a reference list fiend. I love citations. I enjoy working with bibliographies. You won’t hear someone say that very often. But as true as it is, there are a few things that would make my job a lot easier if they’re done at the client’s end. As luck would have it, they would also make your life easier so I have folded my “wish list” into this much more general overview on reference maintenance and how to save yourself work—and money, if you're hiring an editor to work on your references—down the road.
1. Your master list
Keep a central database of all the sources you’ve ever used in any type of written material you produce. Just create a new file in Word, Excel, or any other application you like, name it anything you please (perhaps "Master Source List," if you’re reaching for a suggestion), and keep a running list. This will save you the work of having to look the reference info up in the future if you use the same source again.
There is reference manager software that already does this sort of thing, and I will discuss briefly below. For now, I'm assuming most people will be starting with a DIY version of this practice.
2. Know your style
If you always use the same citation style (such as APA, MLA, or Chicago), you can save even more time in the future by applying that style to the references in your master list. Otherwise, you might have to reformat the references for different citation styles as you reuse them, but this would be the case whether or not you had the reference handy.
I have a caveat, though. Even though the main part of your entry will be formatted for your citation style, please make your system flexible enough so you can . . .
3. Include extra info anyway
Please, please do this. This is actually the major money-saving tip, as well.* You might in the future need to use a citation style other than your usual one (academic journals in particular often have their own eccentricities). There are some specific pieces of info that some citation styles include and others omit entirely. To be on the safe side, include that info within or alongside the entry in your master list, even if they aren’t part of your primary style. The pieces of info I would particularly make sure to include are:
4. Front-load your list
Create the references for your master list while you’re doing your research. Don’t wait until you’re sure you’re going to use them—put them in the list as soon as you’ve located them and determined that the source isn’t in a completely different field (it’s OK to leave out “Accounting for Nonprofits” if it turns out to be about charity bookkeeping instead of a sociology article on the importance of organizing, for instance).**
First, the whole point is saving yourself later work. If you end up using the source, this will make it easier to find not only the reference info but the source itself. Second, even if you don’t end up using this source now, it might be useful to have a record of it for future research.
Even more crucially, don’t put them off until you’re done with the writing. I’ve edited papers with excellent in-text citations but no reference list at all. “Gee, I wish I’d waited to write that down so that I could enjoy the challenge of trying to figure out what ‘Reynolds 2007’ refers to,” said no one ever. Again, 30 seconds of work at the front end will save yourself minutes of work (for yourself or someone who's charging you for it) at the back end.
Citations: The soft approach
There are applications that already do much of what I’ve referred to above. Some of the examples clients of mine have used include Zotero, Mendeley, and Endnote, but there are many others available. Some are designed to let you easily share and combine your citation lists with those of other researchers. Some use their own file format, some use otherwise familiar ones like BibTeX, and others are entirely web-based. I don’t have any particular endorsements because I haven’t directly used any yet aside from the one built into Microsoft Word, but Wikipedia provides a convenient list here.
Whatever platform you use to maintain a master list or database of your citations, the two main points are the same. First, front-load the work. Even if you’d like them to be, references are not afterthoughts; they’re the foundation of your research. Second, err on the side of including more info than necessary, including details that aren’t required for the citation style you’re using today. You never know when a journal or book publisher will need the rest. Omitting info later will be a lot easier than having to look it up all over again.
* I cannot emphasize this enough. The 30 seconds you spend writing down first names, page ranges, and location info while you have the source material right in front of you can save your editor chargeable work later—and not the same 30 seconds of it. Most editors I know won't even do this info-hunting or will do no more than a minute of it per cite; they'll query it so that you can look it up yourself.
As for me, I do hunt this info down, but only when I'm charging hourly for it. And to be frank, I do it because it's profitable for me. When the source is not already in one's hands or on one's screen, the work of looking it up can take anywhere from a minute or two to half an hour, depending on how widespread the info about this source is on the web. Per citation. And that’s time your editor will be charging for if she’s the one who needs to track it down. In other words, the 30 seconds you didn’t spend recording this info might cost you as much as $10–20 later on if someone else does it. If you have 25 sources in your reference list in that state, then you can see how it multiplies.
** Example adapted from one included in this post on writing a title for an academic work. While you're there, you might enjoy reading the whole thing. It gave me chuckles.
I'm Lea, a freelance editor who specializes in academic and nonfiction materials. More info about my services is available throughout this site.