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What’s Chicago Format and When Should You Use It?

by | Jan 12, 2021 | Academic Writing

Information is taken from the 17th edition Chicago Manual of Style, latest version.

Even if you’ve never used Chicago format, you’ve likely seen it used a few times as you’ve done research for school or even in a book you’ve read for fun. Many research-based books use Chicago style to fit additional information in the footnotes. Chicago is a super simple essay and literary format to follow. Many people agree that it’s the easiest to read because it uses footnotes and endnotes, which don’t distract the reader from the content.

Here’s a quick note before we get started: If you’re writing an essay for a college course and you hear a professor call the format Turabian or Chicago-Turabian instead of only Chicago, you can still use the Chicago Manual of Style. Turabian is just an essay-centric version of the Chicago format, and there aren’t many differences between the two. Often, Turabian and Chicago are terms used interchangeably for the same thing—Chicago format. 

When Should You Use Chicago Format?

In general, Chicago is used for writing that falls under literature, history, or the arts. That’s a pretty big net, right? Well, there are a few reasons that make Chicago so popular, but we’ll get into that in the next section. 

When it comes to academic writing—such as essays, scholarly articles, and even books—Chicago is the top choice for any writer who falls into one of the three above subject categories. Within the academic essay writing realm, though, most of you are probably tackling your first Chicago essay in a history course. 

History classes are usually pretty heavy in essay writing, so it’s essential to understand the basics of Chicago formatting, citations, etc. You can check out our other Chicago articles for that information! 

Why Is Chicago Easier to Read?

As I said earlier, there are a lot of reasons why Chicago is so popular among both academic writers and creative writers, and one of the biggest reasons being that Chicago’s Notes-Bibliography (NB) System makes it much easier for readers to focus on the content without getting distracted by citations at the end of every sentence. With Chicago, the reader can choose not to read the citations at all and still get the full scope of the content. 

Here’s a quick breakdown of the Chicago NB System. Chicago uses footnotes and endnotes to cite sources delineated with superscript numbers that appear within the text. At the end of a piece of Chicago formatted writing, the author provides a bibliography with extended, more detailed versions of the noted citations that connect back to the notes themselves.

Especially when it comes to a heavily researched book—like a history book on the sinking of the RMS Titanic or a creative nonfiction book on Greek mythology—Chicago is the way to go. When you’re presenting a ton of important information that your readers need to soak in like a sponge to continue reading and understanding your work, you do not want your citations to get in the way. The NB System keeps the reader’s distractions minimal, especially when the author or publisher chooses to use endnotes rather than footnotes. 

The choice between endnotes and footnotes is an important one. It mostly comes down to two factors. The first: Do you want your readers to quickly find a specific source without having to flip to the end? And second: Do you want the bottoms of your pages filled with body text, or do you want them taken up with citation notes? These questions revolve around aesthetic and practical issues, but it comes down to personal preference between you and your publisher as to which note type you choose. 

However, if you’re writing an essay or thesis that’s graded, you should always go with the note type that your professor requires. 

Chicago Style in Creative Writing

Chicago format is hugely popular in creative writing—though you may sometimes come across MLA format used for specific creative writing types. You may not ever see it used in fiction, even if that fiction is research-based. However, when it comes to creative nonfiction, Chicago is ubiquitous. 

Most creative nonfiction writers tend to use endnotes, mostly to keep the bottoms of their pages clear of numbers and citations. When writing creative nonfiction—as I am here—it’s essential to keep in mind things like flow, rhythm, and pacing. After all, you want your reader to both absorb information and enjoy it, right? Unfortunately, citations can detract from the reader’s experience, making it challenging to keep them engaged in your writing.

As I said earlier, some creative writers choose to use MLA format instead of Chicago. When it comes down to each style’s readability, MLA has too many in-text distractions that disrupt the reader’s flow, whereas Chicago never runs into that issue. Take some time to consider your reader’s experience as they move throughout your work, and think about how citations—whether in the text or delineated as notes—affect that experience. 


Chicago format lives in tons of different genres and subjects, and many writers love it. Don’t be afraid to jump into it, even if you’ve never used Chicago or are unfamiliar with its citation types. You won’t regret the new freedom you’ve found as a writer in gaining more knowledge about how this style works. And don’t forget to check out our other Chicago articles for answers to all your formatting questions!

Emmi Conner
By Emmi Conner

Emmi holds a BFA in creative writing from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. She’s been published in Adelaide Literary Magazine, and Atlantis Magazine. Emmi has written multiple articles for Writer’s Hive in the academic section with topics about MLA, APA, and Chicago Style essay writing.


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