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I am using TeXShop and I have a small references section that looks good when it renders as per a \bibitem for each reference. Is there a way to include citations in the main text without resorting to a bibtex file?

I have tried \cite{} but it doesn't seem to make a difference what I put in the curly braces; I just get "?" in the brackets.

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    If you produce your \bibitems for thebibliography manually, there is no need for BibTeX and .bib files. Usually \bibitem has one argument that can be used in \cite, for example: \bibitem{sigfridsson} E. Sigfridsson and U. Ryde: Some Chemistry Title, J. Chem. 1998 will be cited as \cite{sigfridsson}. Can you add a short example document that shows what you are doing to the question (an MWE: tex.meta.stackexchange.com/q/228/35864). Note that you have to compile your document at least twice to see the correct reference in the citations. – moewe Nov 2 '19 at 15:22
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    The argument of a \cite instruction must correspond to the mandatory argument of a \bibitem instruction. – Mico Nov 2 '19 at 15:31
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The argument of every \cite instruction -- the "citation key" -- in the body of the document must correspond exactly to the mandatory argument of a \bibitem instruction in the thebibliography environment. (\bibitem can also have an optional argument. If the \bibitem statements don't have optional arguments, LaTeX will form numeric-style citation call-outs.) And, be sure to run LaTeX twice.

Here's an MWE (minimum working example) involving two \cite instructions and two \bibitem statements.

enter image description here

\documentclass{article}
\begin{document}

\cite{aa}, \cite{bb}

\begin{thebibliography}{2}

\bibitem{aa} Anna Anderegg, 2019, Thoughts.

\bibitem{bb} Brenda Bradshaw, 2018, Worries.

\end{thebibliography}

\end{document} 

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