I’m a huge fan of footnotes, both in print and on the web. I use them all the time on this blog, and I have a ton of opinions about how to do them right, though I don’t think I’ve ever spoken about them, let alone justified them. This blog post intends to do just that.
I’m not a professional writer, typesetter, or designer, though, and while I do think that I’m okay at stringing words together, I don’t intend to present this as anything more than my own private opinions. If you have great points that speak for or against anything I say in this post, please reach out!
The obvious use for footnotes in more or less academic—or, at least, well-researched writing is to create a place where the authors can put their references without cluttering the flow of the text. While this is a perfect use case for footnotes, it’s not what I’m concerned with primarily: I don’t write papers, and my work is of the more light-hearted variety1.
I personally use footnotes primarily to neatly tuck away nota benes, quips, jokes, tangentially related thoughts, and anything that would otherwise distract from the idea at hand. My prose isn’t usually very focused to begin with, and if I feel like something I’m thinking of while writing is worth sharing, but maybe not quite in scope, I will write a footnote and get it out of my system to achieve maximum mental cleanliness.
As such, I don’t expect anyone to read my footnotes. I’m usually the kind of person that flips to the back of the book or clicks on the link to read through the footnote, but I know that this is more due to my somewhat obsessive reading—I’m very much a completionist in that regard. But, as I am that kind of person, I’ve developed strong opinions about where to put them. Let me elaborate.
Where to put footnotes
There are many different places for footnotes, and each has its own limitations and drawbacks. Before I talk about where we could place footnotes and why, though, I want to talk about an alternative: sidenotes.
A side note on sidenotes
I personally enjoy sidenotes—some call them marginalia—very much. They’re unobtrusive but close enough to the text to not break coherence. My personal gold standard in books are the books by Edward Tufte, and my personal favorite is Beautiful Evidence. Edward Tufte is a bit of a cult figure in data science, and for good reason. His thoughts are always worth reading, and he walks the talk—his books are typeset gorgeously.
On the web, I’m a big fan of Matthew Butterick. I bought the typeface that I use for the code examples, Triplicate Code, from him. His fonts are gorgeous, and I usually listen to his advice when thinking about typographic design on the web—though I probably get all sorts of things wrong. If you like his work, you might want to consider supporting him.
You might have noticed that I don’t use sidenotes on this blog. There’s a good reason for that: making sidenotes responsive is not easy. Matthew Butterick puts his sidenotes in boxes after the annotated paragraph starting at a certain screen width, but personally I’m not a fan of that solution, since then we’re back to breaking up the flow of the main text.
So I decided to have footnotes instead of sidenotes on my website. I believe footnotes to be inferior on big screens, but keeping the style of this website simple and consistent between screen widths is what’s most important to me. Other people might have different priorities, and that’s okay.
So, where should we put our footnotes then? If we’re talking about the web, the answer to that question is simple: on the bottom of the page, connected to the body through a hyperlink. Some people put return links at the end of their footnotes; I usually don’t, hoping that the “back” button behaves as it should. Either way, your notes are nicely hidden to those of your readers who don’t want to read non-topical musings, and still easily accessible to those who do.
In books, this question is a little more complex. The three major types of footnotes I’ve seen are
- on the bottom of the page,
- at the end of the chapter, and
- at the end of the book.
Let’s talk about them one by one.
Footnotes at the bottom of the page
Putting your footnotes at the bottom of the page is courteous to readers like me who want to know what you have to say. When the footnotes get long and stretch multiple pages, however, reading your footnotes becomes fairly tedious. I’ve seen footnotes that were longer than the body text on the page, and long footnotes that dragged on for multiple pages, interspersed by shorter ones that stayed on the page that referenced them. To me, both options look awkward, but can be used to great comedic effect, as in the writing of the authors Jorge Luis Borges, Terry Pratchett, and Walter Moers, to name a few.
Footnotes at the end of the chapter
Some authors2 seem to prefer putting their footnotes at the end of the chapter. While this provides a natural grouping, I find it to be tremendously frustrating to search for the end of the chapter every time I want to see what a footnote has to say—or at least the first time for every chapter. This might be less of a problem for those among your readers who don’t want to read them—being a sort of inverse of the bottom-of-the-page design—, but as a lover of footnotes I find this to be just rude.
Footnotes at the end of the book
Having your footnotes at the end of the book, ideally grouped by chapter, is probably the best compromise: it doesn’t disturb the flow of the page, but provides a canonical location for all footnotes. We can accomodate both long, meandering footnotes and short references there. Though this brings me to another point of grief for me: mixing footnotes and references.
A personal pet peeve
It’s rare that I need to know the source of a thought—though it’s very important that it’s attributed correctly—, so I don’t usually care about references that much. I’m a casual reader.
As such, it is pretty frustrating to have to look at the back of the book every time to find out whether there is an interesting thought there or “merely” an attribution3. I know I’m guilty of this as well, but I rarely attribute anything on this blog “properly”, for better or for worse.
Bottom line: my personal recommendation
To keep things brief4: I recommend putting both your footnotes and your references at the end of the book, but separately. I say that as someone who has never written or published a book, has no experience in typesetting, and is generally ignorant about the technical aspects of producing books.
In the end, none of my musings truly matter: I’m nothing but a semi-voracious reader with a lot of strong, but weakly-held opinions that I like to share. I do think that I spent more time thinking about footnotes than most people do, just because I like them quite a bit. This blog post is meant to be as much a love letter as it is musings on how to use them and where to put them. I hope you took something away from it that made you think, and I hope we’ll meet again!
1. If you’re the kind of person that believes toying with occult technicalities is light-hearted, which I happen to be.
2. Weirdly, I’ve seen this done most frequently in books written by french philosophers, but that must be a coincidence. Anyway, my editions of Baudrillard’s “Simulacra and Simulation” and Foucault’s “The Order of Things” both exhibit that idiosyncracy.
3. My edition of “Seeing Like a State” by James C. Scott does this, and it annoyed me to no end, so much so that I told my wife, who was the first person who told me that not everyone reads footnotes, a notion that was truly novel to me at the time.
4. Alas, ’tis too late.