17 September 2021

How to do footnotes

Having had a moan at various points about footnotes and referencing I wanted to set out what I think is good practice, from my perspective as a reader, for footnotes and referencing. This is for books, particularly mainstream non-fiction, and not for journal articles or academic texts. Though, for the life of me, I have no idea why they need to be harder to read. I sometimes wonder if the single biggest failure of academia is the notion that the writer has to demonstrate they are more clever than the reader. It is hardly any wonder that students and junior academics are so tortured by the need to write in an academic’ style.

And for those of you who might argue for Harvard referencing let me pick a fight. Harvard treats its readers with contempt. It is tolerable when the referencing is very minimal and there is a need to cite the author — more common in single author pieces that might be encountered in the social sciences. Where the referencing is dense or the papers are multi-authored it quickly becomes ludicrous and almost unreadable. It took me two mins to find this example from the International Journal of Drug Policy.

Absolutely horrible. It is grotesque, though certainly not the worst I’ve seen, and an affront to any reasonable notion of readability.

Let’s go back to books. As a reader, I have often had the experience where I’ve struggled to get into a book. It can just be a background niggle and a difficulty in becoming immersed. The pull of our mobile devices, of the internet, makes it easier than ever to act on the mildest of distractions and disengage. Of course, sometimes this is down to bad writing, but I’m becoming more aware that it is often due to the way the text is presented and the footnotes/referencing can play a role.

Some simple pointers for footnotes and references

  1. Distinguish between footnotes and referencing. Don’t mix the two. Reduce the cognitive effort for the reader.
  2. Avoid commenting on the references unless it is specific information on the location or scope of that source.
  3. Miminise any intrusion on the text. Anything except the words the reader reads interrupts the flow. Ideally, an approach where the text is completely clear of all baubles and embellishment is best. I find superscript numbers tolerable but internet-style underlined hyperlinks with colour changes can be hugely intrusive.
  4. Think very carefully about footnotes and be sparing. Is that nugget better in the text itself or just simply binned? I sometimes think they are an ego trip — again, it’s all about the author and not so much about the reader. They can be informative and witty but to read footnotes on an ebook will involve clicking on the screen, usually at least twice. This breaks concentration that then has to be re-established. It is often slightly better for readers of print books as they will have the footnotes on the same page. Usually in a tiny font…
  5. If you have a lot extra to say and many references then plan for a notes section at the back of the book. This can be easily linked by chapter and using sentence markers. It is possible to dispense with all hyperlinks/superscripts using this method. Many books do this and, as a reader, it is now my favourite. It’s a win-win. The keen reader gets an extra source of information, easily bookmarked if they want to find it while reading, and the prose is clean.


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