Footnotes vs. Endnotes: the debate

One of the little details authors fret about is footnotes vs. endnotes. It’s a style choice: should you keep a slot at the bottom of every page for notes, or collect them all at the end of the book (or chapter)? A quick survey of 10 books from the library shows:

Endnotes: 4
Footnotes: 4
No notes(!): 2

Sure, its fair to say who cares – what is in the notes matters more than where they are, but still. Don’t you have an opinion? Many folks do and get quite passionate about it. Here are the main arguments:

Footnotes. The pros: You can quickly check the note without leaving the page, and the author can stuff funny things in there. The cons: it’s distracting if there are lots of notes and can be visually ugly.

End-notes: The pros: Saves research questions to the end and keeps pages clean. Cons: the footnotes are rarely read and if they are, it’s hard to know what the author is referring to. You also have to jump back and guess where the note came from.

I ask because my book is at that stage. If you have any bright ideas, or entertaining rants, I’d love to hear them now.

Update: Decision was made and you can read about it here.

49 Responses to “Footnotes vs. Endnotes: the debate”

  1. Kent Sandvik

    Footnotes. It takes a struggle to check for the end notes, and with nice page layout models footnotes might even make the page look interesting.

    Reply
  2. Scott (admin)

    Thanks Kent.

    It’s a funny story – there was a day I was passionately in favor of footnotes. In fact I wrote the first book expecting footnotes, and had some good jokes in there that worked if they were on the same page. But a few weeks before the book wrapped up, they changed the template and… endnotes! I had to cut and rework as those comments made little sense, and weren’t funny, when put at the back of the book.

    Reply
  3. Arni Danielsson

    I’m one of the people who cares, a lot. Given a choice I will go for footnotes for the reasons outlined above. Perhaps it’s a preference of function/usability over style.

    Reply
  4. Allen Eskelin

    Both are fine but my personal preference is endnotes. Although I do like footnotes when they are used sparingly and when they add value to the message. If they’re just referencing a source I prefer them in an endnote.

    Reply
  5. ssp

    If you are writing for your readers, the order of preference should be

    • No notes
    • Footnotes
    • Endnotes

    Just try reading a few texts to compare the approaches. If you are having so many footnotes or so much text in them that it breaks your pages, it’s most likely that re-thinking those to not break the layout will also improve your text.

    (PS: your ‘survey of 10 books’ above doesn’t quite add up to 10)

    Reply
  6. Scott (admin)

    ssp: It wouldn’t be so embarrassing that I can’t add, if I could spell. But I’m 0 for 3, I mean 2.

    Any thoughts on David Foster Wallace’s or David Egger’s approach to footnoting?

    Reply
  7. Justine Sanderson

    Why not both? Footnotes for relevant asides, and an indication of reference. Annotated references/bibliography at the end. And if you must go for endnotes, please don’t restart the numbering for each chapter: it’s hard enough finding the relevant endnote, without also having to work out which chapter I’m in.

    Reply
  8. julien

    If you have a chance, just have a look inside Edward Gibbon’s “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”. It’s a footnote lover’s heaven. When I was reading it I remember commenting to myself that what Gibbon had written was actually a very long flattened hypertext document. I was not bothered by the footnotes at all. As a matter of fact, footnotes provided me with a nice break from the main text. Churchill himself said “I rode triumphantly through it from end to end and enjoyed it all…. I was not even estranged by his naughty footnotes.”. So my vote goes to the footnotes.

    Reply
  9. Sam Hasler

    It depends on what the content of them is.

    If they are commenting or expanding on the text then footnotes.

    If they are citing references or giving background detail then endnotes.

    Endnotes: “its hard to know what the hell the author is referring to, and you have to jump back and guess where the note came from.”

    maybe if you had some sparkline style graphic next to them

    +—-+—-+ 15) Endnote text
    | | |
    |- | |
    | | |
    | | |
    +—-+—-+
    p125

    +—-+—-+ 16) Endnote text
    | | |
    | | |
    | | — |
    | | |
    +—-+—-+
    p136

    +—-+—-+ 17) Endnote text
    | |– |
    | | |
    | | |
    | –| |
    +—-+—-+
    p136

    Reply
  10. Marcus

    Scott,

    Can’t you have both?

    It comes to my mind when I read a book with funny and very smart footnotes how good is to have them in the context of the same page. But when I have to check on references to extend what was said in the chapter, there’s no better than all of url’s listed at the end of each chapter.

    So, why not have them both? Each one serving a different purpose.

    Reply
  11. Paulo Eduardo Neves

    Here in Brazil, some of the “popular” tech/science books, like Gladwell1s Blink and Johnson’s Emergence, they simply forget to link the end-notes to the place they reference. I really hate it.

    I really agree with Sam and Justine above, use both. In the end-notes we can see the chapter references. The foot-notes should be used fo side comments.

    Reply
  12. Jeff Curless

    All I have to say is “Locality of reference”. Footnotes are where it’s at.

    Reply
  13. Scott (admin)

    The $10k question is:

    If you do separate the footnotes (author commentary) from endnotes (references), how to you denote the difference in the text? Or are y’all saying that endnotes don’t need to be noted in the main text at all?

    Reply
  14. Harley Pebley

    I’d be one who doesn’t see them as mutually exclusive. IMO, footnotes are for things that are parenthetical to the text and endnotes are for things which are more reference in nature. Differentiation between them could be by many methods: numerals for one and characters for others, or arabic and roman numerals, or symbols for footnotes (*, !) and numbers for endnotes, or…

    Reply
  15. MarcC

    I am firmly in the footnotes camp. I find the older texts with extensive footnotes very easy to read, as whenever the author starts talking about something I with which I am unfamiliar, I can drop down to the footnote to learn more.

    The more thumbs I have to keep in the book to be able to read it (one thumb for the text, another thumb for the end-notes, another thumb for the glossary, possibly another thumb for the index, etc.) the less likely I am to read the book. Properly done, footnotes allow me to read the book with just one thumb, as everything I might need to refer to is right there on the same page in one or more footnotes.

    I am willing to cope with the formatting issue (a single large footnote flowing across the bottoms of more than one page) in order to be able to read the book using just one thumb.

    I strongly suspect that the move toward end-notes is for the convenience of the typesetters, rather based on measurements of reader comprehension. But I have no data to support that contention.

    I have authored and edited a number of books and manuals using software that could automatically generate footnotes and/or end-notes. I think that both have their uses, but if there can only be one solution, footnotes win overwhelmingly. In an ideal solution (to my thinking), the book should have both footnotes and end-notes (duplicated), as well as a full bibliography. For electronic publishing, this is simple and free if the authoring software supports it. For printed paper books, printing and paper costs will most likely not permit such duplication.

    So I vote for extensive and copious footnotes, please.

    Reply
  16. Eric Nehrlich

    I think I’m with the developing movement towards both (footnotes for asides and text expansion, endnotes for references). I’m a sucker for parenthetical asides, though, which makes me more sympathetic towards entertaining footnotes. I also definitely get annoyed when there is substantive commentary in endnotes so I have to keep a bookmark around to mark where I am in the endnotes and flip back and forth all the time.

    One option that a few authors have used is to not mark the endnotes in the text, but to list the references on a page-by-page basis in the endnote with some phrase to anchor the reference – e.g. if you refer to a study on innovation by Some NonProfit in the text, in the end notes, it would say something like “Some NonProfit study:” then the details of the reference.

    Reply
  17. Elaine

    I’m with Justine, Marcus & Eric: a combo of footnotes & endnotes. I’ve noticed the same thing that Eric has, too, and I think that’s the best option. The really “boring” stuff, references and so on, goes back there so if I need it for research or whatever I can get to it.

    But good footnotes (asides, extra stuff) are a real treat right in place.

    Reply
  18. Simeon

    “If you do separate the footnotes (author commentary) from endnotes (references), how to you denote the difference in the text? Or are y’all saying that endnotes don’t need to be noted in the main text at all?”

    Surely you’re not going to have more that a couple tangential footnote per page, so the classic single/double daggers would work, while subscript numbers for endnotes, at the end of the chapter if the book is a tech reference style book, as chapters are read out of order.

    Reply
  19. Christopher Svec

    Footnotes.

    If it’s important enough to note, I want to read it in context, instead of flipping back and forth. I never read endnotes.

    Plus, I love funny non-sequiturs that often find their way into footnotes.

    Reply
  20. Sam Hasler

    “If you do separate the footnotes (author commentary) from endnotes (references), how to you denote the difference in the text? Or are y’all saying that endnotes don’t need to be noted in the main text at all?”

    You shouldn’t have more than a couple of footnotes per page but you’ll have many endnotes, so use stars or dagger/double dagger († ‡) for footnotes and numbers for endnotes.

    For citing references isn’t a (the?) convention to create an abbreviation for them and put it in square brackets?

    Reply
  21. Jim

    You’ve answered your own question:

    “Cons: The footnotes are rarely read and if they are, its hard to know what the hell the author is referring to, and you have to jump back and guess where the note came from.”

    Endnotes are as good as no notes.

    Scott, you gotta go with footnotes. I don’t understand when people say they get in the way. If you don’t want to read a footnote, you don’t have to. They are small and out of the way, really.

    I once wrote a paper in college that was about 75% footnotes. The “main text” was just a dialog between two ficticious characters about the subject of the report. This was just the glue to hold together an argument that was entirely found in the footnotes. My prof loved it (probably because it was atypical).

    I’d then recommend having a master reference list at the end of you book, in alphabetical order or grouped by topic.

    Footnotes are, BTW, probably the first form of hypertext: you’re reading along, jump to another bit of content, and then continue reading.

    Footnotes all the way.

    Reply
  22. Josh

    I respectfully disagree with some readers that wrote that “no notes” are better. No notes are never better! We need sourcing, and parenthetical sourcing doesn’t work very well.

    Before providing my thoughts, here’s some context: I love both footnotes and endnotes, and I read them both. Things I don’t like: short endnotes that require context, long footnotes that wrap to the next page (and distract me from the text) and endless lists of sources. One of the best approaches I’ve seen combines the advantages of both. The footnotes offer quick notes of immediate interest or important explanatory value. The endnotes offer extended discourse on the topic in that section or chapter, typically prepared in a more general prose format. You could also work in sources for each section or chapter here. This offers the best of both worlds: the ability to offer immediate help to readers (I almost wrote “users”) in the form of footnotes, and extended discussion without interfering with the main text.

    The problem I’ve into with David Foster Wallace’s approach is that I frequently get so wrapped up in the footnotes that I lose the flow of the prose. It’s fun, but it also makes it more difficult to read. He wrote and article for the Atlantic Monthly a year or two ago that had an even more creative use of footnotes – they were incorporated into the page in the form of colored bubbles. If you’re interested, it was about talk radio (and a good read, for that matter).

    Just my two cents, Josh

    Reply
  23. Josh

    I’ve read through a few more comments and I see that others are advocating the same combined approach – yay!

    Reply
  24. Sam Hasler

    Expanding on what I said above about references. The best approach I’ve seen for citing references is in The Pragmatic Programmer, which had all the references in square brackets. It used [URL 1], [URL 2] for web references, and either the first three letters of the authors name and a 2 digit year e.g. [Fow96], if there were multiple authors their initials e.g. [FBB+99], with letters appended if there were more than one publication in a year e.g. [Knu97a], [Knu97b], and listed them all alphabetically in an appendix (URLs separately of course). I’ve seen the same approach in other books too. The good thing about that system is that it doesn’t clutter the page with footnotes that many won’t read, the references are more meaningful than numbers (so sometimes I knew who was being referenced without having to look it up) and references stay the same between publication. (you can google any of my examples to find out what they were for instance. :)

    You can see what the bibliography looks like here.

    Reply
  25. Scott MacHaffie

    I prefer footnotes because endnotes don’t usually provide enough context to understand them, but would consider endnotes okay if they included the referenced sentence.

    For example:

    Text:
    In the year 900, people no longer thought the world was flat. [1]

    Endnote section:

    [1] _In the year 900, people no longer thought the word was flat._

    Erikson, Leif, “Eh, what’s all this about Canada now?”, Viking Press, c. 900 AD.

    I also like the sparkline idea, but including the text that was referenced is more useful.

    Reply
  26. Leonid Tomilchik

    Footnotes!

    Precisely for the con-reason you gave for End-notes: they are never/rarely read. Flipping pages as you read to look into notes is very cumbersome; and yes, by the time you are finished with the book you cannot easily restore the context for each end-note as you browse through all of them at once. Reads like another book, although a disjointed one.

    Taking the best of both worlds: keep footnotes short (two sentences max); if you need to go beyond that – provide a [n] pointer to an end note. In the end note there should be enough space to quote most (if not all of) the original footnote, which will provide some form of a link back into the original context where this endnote came from.

    Reply
  27. John Price

    I’m squarely in the “footnotes for interesting tidbits, endnotes for references” camp.

    If the extra information you have to share is interesting enough to warrant inclusion in the book, it should go somewhere people are actually going to read it (i.e. not in the endnotes).

    Reply
  28. Maarten

    I’m inclined to side with the “asides in footnotes, sources in endnotes” camp.

    The biggest problem with endnotes is that they don’t usually have any representation in the main text, unlike footnotes. Just knowing while reading that there’s an endnote available, and having the marker distinguish asides from sourcing, would go a long way to making endnotes more friendly.

    Reply
  29. Buu Nguyen

    Go for the footnotes! I hate being interrupted while thinking, and thus, I do not like the fact that I have to turn the pages to find the endnotes (not one shot action, I have to look for it because I do not know when the chapter is ended) . Personally, I do not think footnotes are “visually ugly” as long as the notes space is not as big as the contents space – if a page happens to have more notes than the contents, it means the notes are verbose and you should consider whether the notes should be part of the contents instead.

    Reply
  30. JohnB

    Generally, I’d go with the herd: check 10 books which are handling a topic similar to yours (rather than 10 books at random). What are they doing? They — or their predecessors — have established the accepted format.

    To answer your question more directly:

    If the note is strictly to cite a particular work then simply include the book in the bibliography and have neither footnote nor endnote.

    If the note is designed to provide some background to a particular point in the main text then ask yourself why you didn’t include it in the main text. If it is important then it should have been included in the main text. If it was merely a whimsically brilliant aside then leave that comment for the book tour and drop it in when you’re reading the passage.

    If the audience (readers) is primarily academic then footnotes have traditionally been the way to strut one’s erudition in print (lots of sources; lots of supporting arguments; occasional academic dismissal of a counter-theory).

    At the end of the day the decision won’t be yours: it’ll be the publisher’s.

    (As an aside: I have read fiction that included footnotes to add an air of “authenticity” to the work — George Macdonald Fraser’s _Flashman_ series. It was an interesting little conceit.)

    Reply
  31. Corinne S.

    I say footnotes, both, or neither. And I agree it depends on the contents of the notes. Also, I don’t believe footnotes have to be ugly. In fact, I’ve seen them very well done and sometimes they do add interest to the page.

    For good footnote layouts, talk to the designers at your book publisher, or else look at a bunch of graphic design texts.

    Reply
  32. Jill Bevan

    Thanks for the post. I’m taking a teaching certification exam for Language Arts and I forgot the difference between footnotes and endnotes; your page came up on my google search and reminded me! Footnotes are great in Special Topics in Calamity Physics and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

    Reply
  33. James Johnson

    Endnotes are anoying. For citing sources(important, making asides or expanding footnotes are the way to go. As for as distracting and visually ugly howq can that be? I want to kow the authors sources and thoughts outside the flow of the text.

    Reply
  34. Paul

    Footnotes, footnotes, footnotes!

    I usually look at things like this from a stylistic perspective, with each preference being equally valid, but with footnotes you can see A) where the source fits into the broader text, B) how the source relates to the text and to other sources on the same page and C) if there is something that doesn’t sound right, you don’t have to go searching for how they came to that conclusion.

    Endnotes are a pain in the ass AND they encourage misrepresentation of sources by making it easier to tuck that misrepresentation away. (fewer people check endnotes) So what if they keep the page clean? Unless someone has OCD, I think most people would prefer a clean argument to a clean page, any day.

    Reply
  35. Mazie

    I find it difficult to take seriously an author who doesn’t know how to write “it is” in contraction form. The mixing up of possessive, plural, and contraction is inexcusable especially in a piece designed for the more literate reader.

    Reply
  36. Shelagh Nielsen

    I also struggle with this choice. I take it on a book by book basis. Footnotes are great for textbooks that are presenting new material. I am currently preparing a textbook that includes reference material that should already have been presented earlier in the course in other texts. This text is more about how to incorporate the material into practical use. In this case I am using end notes as the students should have already been introduced to the reference material.

    Reply
  37. M. Tyzenhouse

    As one who has had to lay out pages of books and journals, I am firmly in favor of endnotes.
    A footnote has to begin on the same page as it is referred to in the text. Figures should also be on the same page or opposite from where they are discussed. A two-column page design further limits the layout options, and can result in figures being placed pages away from their discussion.

    Would you rather flip back and forth to understand a diagram, or flip to find the citation? It’s clear to me: endnotes.

    Layout is a

    Reply
  38. Brian Taylor

    I wonder about the same thing since I too am this same stage for my book. My only issue is that when it comes to Footnotes, it seems to clutter a page if you have a considerable amount of thing you’ve included. Second, what happens once your editor gets to work on it and has to make adjustments for sizing of your work?

    Reply
  39. Howard L. Salter

    In Chicago/Turabian Style under 15.46 (p. 505 in the 14th edition) you can combine both styles! In this system the citation notes are set as endnotes. The substantive notes, indicated by symbols beginning with an asterisk for the first note on each printed page are set as foot notes. The order of these symbols are:

    * (asterisk)
    † (dagger)
    ‡ (double dagger)
    § (section mark)
    || (parallels)
    # (number sign, or pound)

    I hope that this helps. I was looking for this answer myself for a while. I use a citation program like Mendelay and I’ve used Endnote before and so the inline citations work great for a bibliographic list of references but those foot notes come in handy for little blurbs that expand on the research or the background information. Note that the Chicago manual of Style says this is a complicated way of doing things but it can be done.

    Reply

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