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A Note About Footnotes

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Let’s start by saying that I like footnotes in books. I’m a big footnote advocate. I love straying from the topic to get to know random useless facts. The problem is not the footnote in itself, but the way it is used. Sometimes, footnotes contain sentences that should have been included in the paragraph itself1. It certainly is difficult to determine whether or not;

  1. The thing you’re about to type should be there at all, or;
  2. You’re sure you’d like to include it, and it could be in the text, or;
  3. It might be deviating from the topic or distracting the reader too much, so you put it in the footnotes.

Okay, so you’ve picked a number, great! Let’s do this! Wait, wait, the most important part—the part where I as a reader get frustrated—has yet to come: where is your footnote located? What do you mean, it’s a footnote, so yeah, in the footer of the same page, right? Correct, that’s my preference too! Why then do so many authors (or editors or publishers?) decide to instead dump these notes at the end to the book?

There’s a big difference between (a) a reference and (b) a footnote. The former should be used to cite work to support your statement, while the latter could be used to provide additional information. Yet many books my eyes glance over somehow manage to (un)successfully combine these. The result is a text that is riddled with superscripted numbers that has you frantically turning pages in order to find the used number in a strange section ad the end of the book, called “notes”. What now, notes? Footnotes? References? Why is there no difference between those two?

If I read a text, and the contents appeals to me, I might go ahead and read a footnote to find out more. But I usually do not immediately look up the reference. It might happen later when I’m looking for more reading material. The problem with the above combinational approach is the lack of distinction. I don’t know if the number is going to lure me to the back of the book to find a disappointing “Surname (2003) The Investigation of X: Analysis Blah. Journal Of Stuff”.

The Rise of Yeast is such a book. I love its contents—I’m a big yeast nut. I wish I read it before writing my own book about the science of sourdough bread. It certainly is a geeky book. One of those books where I love to read the footnotes. But I can’t. They could be references! It’s a tarp! A missed opportunity.

A mish-mash of 'footnotes' in The Rise Of Yeast.

While thinking about the layout for my own book, I ended up making a clear distinction between footnote and reference by using symbols for footnotes—that appear at the end of the very same page—and numbers for references. The used symbols “reset” for every page, as there is space for a new block of footnotes for every page. The numbers do not: each reference is assigned a unique number throughout the whole book.

Footnotes in my own book.

Since I self-published my work, I had to decide everything: from font (size, style, spacing) to margins, and yes, footnote styling and placing. Perhaps many authors who work with publishers do not have a saying in this process. Another missed opportunity.

Something I’m experimenting with for my next work is the usage of Edward Tufte’s handout layout, which makes extensive use of margin space to put in footnotes, references, figures, you name it. To me, the result is astonishingly beautiful. I do think it is mostly suited for more academically themed texts.

Or should those footnotes be more aptly called right-notes?


  1. Like this one! Why is this a footnote? God knows! ↩︎

I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a level 36 Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too.

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