Nonfiction Book Formatting Trick using MS Word

Nonfiction Book Formatting for Microsoft Word

I came across a Writer’s Digest article on research a little while back. (Thanks Chelsea, I think?). The author, Jeff Biggers, explains his research process. I loved it. Jeff was speaking my language here. I love research. In fact, the first three books I formatted were nonfiction, research based books. 

When I did those books I fell back on research once again. I rummaged around online and in bookstores for tips on formatting nonfiction. Working on one of these projects even led me to discover Lulu! In the end, it took some improvisation but I got all three projects looking complete and professional. But I was left wishing for better resources.

Which brings us here. Kind of roundabout, I know. All these years (and numerous book projects) later, I’ve learned and written about a range of book writing and formatting decisions. Yet I never circled back to my first projects. Biggers’s article sparked a memory, bringing back to the fore a thought I’d had for a long time.

What are the minimum best practices and specific formatting details for nonfiction books? Let’s explore!

Formatting Nonfiction Books

Like any book formatting job, start by finalizing the content. Get your manuscript proofed and edited. Don’t worry about the formatting or layout, don’t insert headers or footers. Just get the words right.

With that done, take account of what your content will look like. Do you have a lot of graphics, charts, or tables? Will you use columns? Is it a workbook or a manual?

If you answer yes to any of the above, you might want to consider a dedicated page layout tool. InDesign or Affinity Publisher are my suggestions. 

But if you have a memoir, biography, research project, or other text based nonfiction book, Microsoft Word is probably the software you want. Which, as a strong advocate for layout software that is not Microsoft Word, it hurts me to say. But it’s true. For simple layouts, Word is surprisingly robust when it comes to nonfiction book needs.

Microsoft Word And Nonfiction Books

General tips for book formatting in Word all stand. I won’t go over the basics of how to format a book for publishing, since I covered it all in a post from last year. We’ve got a guide here for you, with some in depth formatting too. But for nonfiction in particular, there are a few specific considerations. This is where Word can really shine. 

Remember too, as we work through these formatting elements, that you’ll be turning your DOCX into PDF for printing. That means you need to be sure you’ve properly set the page size and met all other formatting requirements along with these special elements unique to your nonfiction book.

Most importantly, begin by setting your final paper size before you engage in any formatting.


Word features an option in the ribbon to quickly add a citation. Just select the location of the citation and select Reference > Insert Citation. 

On this menu, enter all the pertinent information about your source. Word features a stripped down (simple) citation menu by default.

You can also check Show all bibliography fields to add more options and enrich your bibliography.

With your citations added, you’ll want to navigate to the back matter and insert a Bibliography. Select Reference > Bibliography to see Word’s pre-formatted bibliography options.

Word keeps it pretty simple with the formatting, but that’s actually a good thing. There’s no need for special formatting or design with your bibliography. Just keep it simple and accurate.

And here’s the bibliography on page. I always recommend checking the way Word sorts your info against the style guide you’re working with. 

Footnotes & Endnotes

After citations, the most important (and unique) element of nonfiction you’ll use is the Footnote/Endnote. Traditionally used to expand on a tangential or extraneous point that doesn’t deserve space in the actual body copy, the Footnote requires specialized formatting.

Once again, Word shows itself to be simple and well-suited to handling footnotes and endnotes. The basic function is found under Insert > Footnotes. From there you’ll see a menu with your Footnote and Endnote options.

The Location defines the placement of the note itself, either on the same page as the anchor text (Footnote) or at the end of the section/book (Endnote). Word’s ‘Convert’ option will allow you to switch between Footnotes and Endnotes. You definitely should select one or the other to use throughout your manuscript. 

The Layout control lets you add columns to your footnotes. This is very useful if you use Footnotes and have a single page with two longer notes. The two-column layout may use less space on the page to organize the notes.

From there you can control the formatting, numbering and continuity of your notes. Once you’ve got your settings defined, click ‘Insert’ to add the note anchor to your text. The corresponding text will appear (either on that page for a Footnote or at the end for an Endnote).

Front & Back Matter

I’ve gone into some detail about what front/back matter is and why it’s important. Without rehashing the topic, there are a few special considerations for nonfiction books to think about. In fact, nonfiction books will use a lot more front and back matter in the design. 

Front matter should include your title and half-title page, the copyright page, a table of contents, and any introduction or preface to the work. For nonfiction work, the intro or preface may be very important and even quite long. Books that rely heavily on research or historical data will often begin with a few words about the material used for source data. 

But it’s the back matter that is truly unique for nonfiction. Most fiction works will include one or two pages at the most, perhaps including acknowledgments and an About the Author page. Excerpts from a forthcoming book aren’t uncommon either. 

Nonfiction books often have a lot more content for their back matter. A bibliography or endnotes section, index, related works, author bios, and more can all be included in your back matter.

Other Considerations for Nonfiction Book Formatting

I hesitate to make a long list of formatting dos and don’ts or other arbitrary best practices for creating a nonfiction book. Simply because the range of what a ‘nonfiction book’ encompasses is…huge. From creative memoirs telling a story more akin to fiction, all the way to the other end of the spectrum with dry manuals and guides; nonfiction is a wide open and varied genre.

For that reason, I kept today’s suggestions simple. The primary elements you’ll need to use with nonfiction that a fiction writer may not touch. Other best practices, like header/footer control and page numbering, don’t actually change much. You may be more inclined to include chapter titles in your header for nonfiction work, but the procedure to do so is unchanged (and can be found here, along with info on inserting page numbering). 

Like any book formatting venture, you should look to the standards and norms first. Don’t try to buck reader expectations until you have a firm and thorough understanding of how to meet those expectations. Thankfully, Word does a great job simplifying some of the more annoying nonfiction formatting requirements and makes them easy to insert. 

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