Take Note

What to do with footnotes has been a problem since Gutenberg. To some they are an aggravation on par with elevator music and cable company service. To others they are the glory of the published word.

For those who want to be able to follow an author’s sources, and for authors who want to make comments that don’t interrupt the flow of the main text, notes are indispensible.

i-20ecc4243d2e01893ffdd7574fba71c7-footnotes 3.jpg

Two main categories of solutions hold sway: Put the notes at the foot of the page (so, footnotes) or at the end of the book (thus, endnotes). The advantage of footnotes is the information is right there for the reader. No turning pages; no disruption. But it can be distracting for those who don’t care. Footnotes can be also make a book look intimidating–too smart for me.

The alternative is endnotes. No disruption, no intimidation, but it is more of a nuisance to find them at the back of the book if you are curious. As a result, academic books tend to use footnotes and general market books more often use endnotes. Keeping in mind the needs of the primary reader in each case is key.

But there is a third solution which is the worst of both possible worlds. That is end-of-chapter notes. With endnotes, at least a reader knows where to find them relatively easily. Not so with end-of-chapter notes. Readers have to flip forward, flip back, flip forward, flip back, until they find the notes–and even then readers may not be sure if they are at the end of the right chapter or not. Running heads only help if you remember the name of the chapter!

And yes, even for a man who loves the feel and smell of print and ink, I must confess that linked notes in an ebook is an elegant solution. Easy navigation back and forth. And I’m glad that IVP was one of the first publishers to routinely offer this feature in its ebooks.

IVP has stopped using a fourth option–“hidden” endnotes (without numbers) for two main reasons: ebook production and reader usability. Yes, it can be a cleaner reading experience without numbers embedded in the text, but readers may not realize that there are notes until they get to the end of the book. And for the ebook versions, with no note numbers, you’d have to tag some piece of the text itself, which has to be done manually and can delay ebook release.

So footnotes? Sure. Endnotes? That can work too. Linked notes? Sounds great. End-of-chapter notes? Never.

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.

10 thoughts on “Take Note”

  1. I have been editing university textbooks for decades. End of chapter notes are very common in texts and are useful because they place proximately those details with other supplementary material, such as questions for review, questions for a deeper understanding of the text, recommended titles for further reading, annotated short bibliographies, and so on. For Christian writers producing materials for small group study, notes at the end of the chapter could be useful for keeping those details close to the chapter they explicate.
    Never say never!

  2. Certainly end of chapter notes are not without merit, Laurna. And I should certainly encourage any author to listen to an editor with decades of experience! Yet I see questions for discussion, bibliographies, supplemental and the like in a different category than notes. They can each stand on their own, complete, without going back and forth to the text–unlike notes. They often take readers beyond the chapter rather than back into the chapter.

    I suppose questions could be the exception. But even so, in that case the questions are the focal point–the starting point for the reader. And when the reader is at the end of the chapter with the questions, it is easier to reference content in the chapter that the questions deal with. But readers don’t start with notes and go back to the chapter. It is the other way around.

    Though you are right, that rules are meant to be broken by those who know what they are doing, I fear I remain unrepentant at this point.

  3. Notes should always, always, always be at the bottom of the page in academic works to make the information immediately available to the reader. No exceptions.

    Imagine going to a restaurant, being seated at a table, and then being told that salt, pepper, all condiments, and silverware, and napkins are at a separate table, in a different room, at the other end of the building. If you need something while you are eating, you are welcome to walk to the other room, look around, and see if you can find what you need. Such a restaurant would go out of business and rightly so.

    Regarding Laurna’s comments, I do think chapter questions, recommended reading, supplemental bibliographies, and such work well at the end of individual chapters in textbooks, but putting footnotes at the end of chapters is the worst of all the footnote solutions. It may be easier for the editors and typesetters, but it is a complete nuisance for readers.

    Let me explain why it is a nuisance. Imagine you are reading a great book. The author makes a fascinating argument, and you see a footnote. You are interested to see whether he has an additional point to make, recommended articles or monographs on the subject, so you start looking for the note. You flip through the notes at the end of the book while holding your place in the text. You finally find the note, and all it says is “Ibid.” Had the footnotes been where it should be, a simple glance down would have been all you needed to know this particular note was merely a source reference. But you never know with endnotes, so you have to check each one and finding them is usually a time-consuming bother. After a number of instances of this, the typical reader eventually reaches the point where he or she doesn’t bother going to the endnotes any longer to see if the author made an additional point or suggested additional reading.

    When an author and publisher agree to use endnotes or end of chapter notes (or when a publisher decides to do this over the objections of the author), what they are saying to the reader is that the material in those notes is unimportant, and they don’t care whether the reader looks at it or not.

    Again, I’m referring to academic works. There is no good reason for a reader of academic works to be aggravated by bottom of the page footnotes. Good footnotes are part of the very definition of a good academic work.

    There was arguably a (weak) excuse for endnotes when typesetting was manual, but now that it’s done with software, there is no excuse for a practice that causes such aggravation to readers.

  4. More civilised academic fields use in text citations. Notes are then much less common, and if you have less than one per page on average then all the potential downsides of footnotes disappear.

  5. I find end notes in an ebook nearly useless, as getting to them on my Kindel takes forever, and returning to my place in the book is equally time consuming and disrupts the flow of thought from the text. I much prefer footnotes where I can have instant access to the additional information as it pertains to and enriches the text.

    In a hard copy, either end of chapter, or end of page notes are great. To me references and sources are very helpful grouped by chapter at the end of the book.

  6. Dannii–yes, in-text citations are another option I didn’t mention since I didn’t want the blog to get too long–though I suppose I could have mentioned it in a footnote. Such in-text citations are essentially the required form in social science literature, for example. But if there are many, then it can clutter the page and be a distraction for readers. Nonetheless, social scientists are probably pretty used to them so, like telephone poles, they tend not to see them. Andy

  7. Endnotes ought to be outlawed by all publishers. They are particularly frustrating when the notes are a mixture of interesting comments and dull citations to obscure literature that I will never peruse. This means that I have to flip to the end of the book each time to see which type of endnote is being offered. If they were at the bottom of the page on which they occur, this would not be necessary. And it is even worse when the endnotes are identified by chapter number, but it is the chapter name that is at the top of the text page. That adds the additional step of having to look up the chapter too. Go footnotes!!

  8. The worst choice is notes at the end of the book with just chapter numbers and no chapter names.

    While notes that furnish appropriate citations are needed and welcomed, the whole issue could be tamed simply by better planning and writing of notes that express the author’s tangential thoughts. Some notes really are a waste of time and shouldn’t even be there (wherever “there” is), while others are quite good. Writers could, with a little skill and effort, work the good ones into the main text.

    There’s no such thing as good writing–there’s only good rewriting.

  9. Paul, you are right that endnotes that mix citations and comments are a bit frustrating. If that is happening, it signals to me that the author has probably written an academic book and should use footnotes. Or it means, the author really doesn’t care if readers pay attention to the notes at all. In general, I think you are right that if endnotes are being used, the should be purely for citation and that anything explanatory should be left out entirely or woven into the main text. Andy

Comments are closed.