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Endnotes, again

July 28th, 2009

I really, really hate endnotes. But now that I am writing a book I have to decide whether I have to swallow my pride and use them, and if not, what alternative to adopt.

To start with, I want to distinguish between explanatory notes, spelling out a point that is marginal to the main text and references giving authority for some claim made in the text, or examples or a person making a claim that I may endorse or criticise. In academic work, I’m used to the Harvard format where explanatory notes are placed as footnotes, and references cited in the body of the text as “Quiggin (2009)”, then listed in full at the end. This is much better than the all-footnotes system used, for example, in legal writing.

For a popular book on a technical subject like “Zombie economics”, there are a few options, which can be mashed up in various ways.

* The standard endnotes setup with explanatory notes and references listed at the end of the book
* Footnotes for explanation only: this leaves open the question of how to deal with references
* A further reading section at the end of each chapter, in place of references
* A book without references, but with an online hypertext version in which readers who want to chase references can find them.

Any thoughts?

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  1. July 28th, 2009 at 21:40 | #1

    Write one book without notes but refer to the second book which will be available soon….

  2. Uncle Milton
    July 28th, 2009 at 21:55 | #2

    Starred * footnotes for explanations (but keep them few and short). Numbered References at the end. That way the reader does not have to go back and forth between the page they are reading and the end note, which is annoying in itself, but particularly when the footnote is a reference.

  3. Sinclair Davidson
    July 28th, 2009 at 22:06 | #3

    Try to avoid endnotes – non-academics don’t read them and they only annoy those who do want to read them. Hypertext also just annoys – it makes reading on the train and in bed impossible. Think about the Kennedy econometrics book that has general stuff at the front of the chapter with a detailed technical section at the end of the chapter for those who want more detail.

  4. Hermit
    July 28th, 2009 at 22:06 | #4

    Put the book on a CD with inline links. I suspect that dead trees media are in decline and won’t be published some years from now.

  5. July 28th, 2009 at 22:39 | #5

    Good writing minimises the extra work that a reader has to do (except for special cases such as exercises in textbooks). Having endnotes means that the reader has to do a lot of flicking back and forth between the main body and the endnotes. This is one reason that I prefer footnotes, if there are not too many. If you choose to use endnotes, I very much prefer endnotes at the end of each chapter, rather than the end of the book. When endnotes are at the end of each chapter, there is less work for the reader (especially if there is a lot of endnotes).

    I am definitely in favour of references in the main body of the text.

    Changing your mind about the format for these things of course is much less of a hassle if you are using a typesetting languate such as LaTeX.

  6. 2 tanners
    July 28th, 2009 at 22:40 | #6

    Although david h’s KW solution is fun, I like explanatory footnotes. I suspect that given the amount of time you have devoted to demolishing poorly sourced work, unreferenced material will not fly for you. So my option would be a further reading section and maybe an online reference work.

  7. Don Arthur
    July 28th, 2009 at 22:41 | #7

    I love endnotes.

    And that’s why it’s interesting to find people who don’t.

    What I like most is this:

    1. Well written text that flows, pulling the reader along (a narrative, a clearly structured argument etc).

    2. Information that disrupts the flow of the text in endnotes. Why include it at all you ask? One example might be a paraphrase of another writer’s work in the text with a verbatim quote in an endnote. The quote lets readers check your interpretation for themselves.

    3. Endnotes that are easy to use. That means including chapter names (not just numbers) in the notes section and putting the page numbers the notes refer to at the top of each endnotes page (eg “Notes to pages 261-65).

    4. Endnotes which allow me to check the claims made in the text. I don’t like it when writers reference secondary sources when then could have gone to the primary source (eg “Jones quoted in Smith”) or where the reference points to an unsubstantiated claim or opinion.

    Maybe I’m weird, but I enjoy reading endnotes. I love it when a writer gives you an little aside or expands on a part of the text in a way that’s interesting but not crucial to the argument.

    For example when Hayek writes: “It may help the reader if I illustrate the general contention stated in the text by an account of the personal experience which led me to see the problem in this manner …” That endnote is one of my favourite passages in his work.

    I even enjoy endnotes in novels. For example, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

  8. BilB
    July 28th, 2009 at 23:00 | #8

    I think that I prefer read as you go side column notes. Or if end notes need to be that meaty then perhaps they are really a sequel.

  9. Don Arthur
    July 28th, 2009 at 23:28 | #9

    An aside about side notes …
    David Foster Wallace’s article Host used an unusual system of colour-coded side notes.
    The notes are extremely distracting but kind of fun.
    But when the article was reprinted in the anthology ‘Consider the Lobster’ it turned into something monstrous.

  10. Martin
    July 29th, 2009 at 01:16 | #10

    It depends on what your notes are for and what the reader is supposed to do with them. I would suggest that if you want your reader to read something, it should be in the body of the text. Perhaps there is a convention that secondary material should be in a footnote and the reader’s normal flow of reading is to drop down and read the footnote and then resume the main text.

    Anything else is for a separate class of reader such as your critics and successors who want to check any quotations and references, and want supporting evidence for your facts. I would suggest that, for a popular work, you should just issue a technical paper containing all that information; it can go on your web site. For an academic work you would put all that in endnotes or footnotes, but I do not think your ordinary readers would look at endnotes and putting it in footnotes would just get in the way.

    By all means add further reading, but for the general reader not the specialists.

  11. Ernestine Gross
    July 29th, 2009 at 05:26 | #11

    I prefer the Harvard style. Those who wish to have the flow of the main argument can ignore the explanatory footnotes and those who don’t care about the references can ignore them.

    I find chapter end notes useful in books with a high content of original results and a lengthy intellectual history on the subject matter.

  12. July 29th, 2009 at 06:16 | #12

    I’m another that likes endnotes and footnotes. I like endnotes for things that I will probably not want to look at, but I can check if I am particularly interested. Footnotes for things that I am quite likely to want to read, but that are an aside from the main flow of the text*.

    I agree with Peter Wood’s comment on LaTaX. I’m curious, John – what software are you using for preparing your book?

    * I’m a Terry Pratchett fan so I have grown to enjoy the footnote even in a novel. I think in some of his early books he had footnotes that filled half the page, and some recursive footnotes.

  13. Tim Dymond
    July 29th, 2009 at 07:38 | #13

    I like endnotes – and I usually read them. However bearing in mind that this makes me a sick weirdo, I favour the ‘list for further reading’ at the end of each chapter. For a popular book on a technical subject – I think most readers who are sufficiently intrigued by one of the ideas you describe, or oddball characters you reference (ie economists) would appreciate being referred to an original work, or a biography. The they can chase it up themselves. You could still have the occasional footnotes throughout the text for something you think needs a specific reference or explanation.

  14. John Mashey
    July 29th, 2009 at 07:40 | #14

    1) There are:

    a) Standalone physical books.

    b) Online copies of books, ranging from Kindle-able to PDF, but even there, not likely to do justice to books like Tufte’s.

    c) Websites, structured differently and with extras, sometimes in support of physical books.
    Ex: see David MacKay’s site or Spencer Weart’s The Discovery of Global Warming. You might want to look at these and talk to both those authors.

    Contemplation of c) takes thoughtful design about what goes where, the extent to which a book can be used offline or not, the nature of the audience, etc. I suggest that we are in for serious rethinking of all this over the next few years. I think much of the existing practice in footnotes/endnotes is basically broken or suboptimal in the modern world.

    And (if readers happen to be in the SF Bay Area), attend Books, Google and the Future of Digital Print Thursday the 30th. I know one of the speakers well, and I’ve heard the other, and both are very good.

    2) But all of this is just opinion. Why not do *science*? UQ has a School of Psychology, of which at least 4 Centres/Labs seem to do work that might bear on this question.

    When I was at Bell Labs, I used to manage cognitive psychologists who studied such things: how people learned, how efficiently they learned, how well they retained knowledge, how information could be organized both for learning and reference, etc. Of course, that was because with 1M people in constant need of training in changing methods and technologies, serious money was actually involved.

    Rather than just having software people write human interfaces according to what they thought, we put them next to psychologists who actually knew some answers, and better, knew how to do the right sorts of experiments.

    Still, I would think that someone in UQ’s Psychology School might be studying such things, or if not, they ought to be, or at least know who is.

  15. TerjeP (say tay-a)
    July 29th, 2009 at 08:29 | #15

    I like footnotes and endnotes.

  16. dez
    July 29th, 2009 at 09:12 | #16

    Another option is two sets of footnotes, one using superscript numbers (for references) and another using symbols (asterisk, dagger, doubledagger, parallels, pilcrow) for per-page, explanatory asides. This is easily done in LaTeX.

    But for a book aimed at the popular-but-serious market (sadly, a small demographic) I personally prefer to have one set of footnotes for the explanatory asides, and have a summary paragraph at the end of each chapter (perhaps titled, as you suggested, ‘further reading’) which runs through the argument presented in the chapter and points to the references for each element. I like this because it provides a good recapitulation of the arguments and allows the author to add comments about the refs.

  17. Alice
    July 29th, 2009 at 09:46 | #17

    I must admit I love the footnotes method – there is just a little number that doesnt intrude in the body of work.

  18. Alice
    July 29th, 2009 at 09:48 | #18

    If you are aiming at the popular market JQ – I think they would prefer footnotes. The Harvard system interrupts the body with names and dates…and it can be tiresome I imagine for ordinary folks to read (Bloggs and Boofhead, 1996)!!etc

  19. Alice
    July 29th, 2009 at 09:50 | #19

    How do I get Latex into GretL? Does anyone know?

  20. Chris Warren
    July 29th, 2009 at 10:01 | #20

    Footnotes are absolutely essential for any rigorous professional writing. They ensure that readers can follow-up any claim and can arrive at similar or alternative conclusions.

    Footnotes are on the same page as the matter being noted.

    Endnotes (often at the end of a chapter, or work) are a waste of time as they destroy the functionality of having footnotes in the first place.

    Footnotes good, endnotes bad.

  21. PeterS
    July 29th, 2009 at 13:38 | #21

    I’m with Uncle Milton@2 – explanatory footnotes with daggers, etc. and numbered endnotes for references. I really hate it when explanatory notes are mixed up with references. I find myself checking for when the next useful endnote might turn up, and end up forgetting what I am reading about.

  22. Peter Rickwood
    July 29th, 2009 at 13:50 | #22

    As a fellow end-note hater, I like Uncle Milton’s solution best:

    Starred * footnotes for explanations (but keep them few and short). Numbered References at the end.

  23. Jim Birch
    July 29th, 2009 at 14:07 | #23

    Footnotes are ok but become disruptive if they get too involved. When I’m reading I often have a moment of dilemma wondering whether to take the diversion to the footnote or stay on the main narrative track, so a quick aside in the footnote suits me.

    Endnotes allow substantial discussion of peripheral points, so they can sometimes be more interesting than the main text. Let it rip in the end notes! While references are necessary, I’m rarely interested in actually following them up, but I do often scan the endnotes after the main text for the additional material, especially if I like the author and think that what interests him will interest me. This, and a little endnoted dry humour, makes the flipflopping and mental parsing of references worthwhile.

    From the aesthetic point of view, endnotes allow all the references to be tidied out of the text. It just makes a better look. I think this is why endnotes are common in books, especially science books, that want to be popular and readable but still rigorous.

    Of course, the problem with endnotes for the author must be that they make more work; you will actually have to choose the relevant additional material then write, review and proof it.

  24. Alice
    July 29th, 2009 at 14:17 | #24

    The only problem I can see with using footnotes for explanations is for people like me who cant see the damn things well enough…..I like to see explanations in bigger print without resorting to my reading specs which I dont normally need (except for footnote notes) hence endnotes for explanations please.

  25. July 29th, 2009 at 15:09 | #25

    I suggest a page or two “further reading” discussion at the end of each chapter. I don’t like endnotes. I do like the “Harvard system” for academic papers. The endnotes for references in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management are the most annoying.

  26. Donald Oats
    July 29th, 2009 at 19:44 | #26

    Footnotes, numbered, and references at the end of the main text. Having the references at the end means that they appear in full only once, and they may be succintly referred to from any chapter needing to cite them.

    As for the demise of the book, I prefer the physical book when studying from it, but use the virtual form for quick lookup and reference. Some things are just meant to be books :-)

  27. Jill Rush
    July 29th, 2009 at 23:38 | #27

    Sidenotes make a book more accessible to a wider audience and are in bigger print than footnotes or endnotes in most cases. Versions on line do need to have live links. A quote from the original source works well at the side and can illuminate a point better than many words of description – for me anyway.

  28. derrida derider
    July 30th, 2009 at 18:08 | #28

    While I much prefer the Harvard format, for a general readership what about using breakout boxes for explanations? They have the advantage of being standalone explanations less tightly tied to, and so less interfering with, a particular piece of the the body text.

    For references stick to Harvard as being the least intrusive while still letting those interested chase references. In fact using Harvard it’s easy to then annotate the bibliography to serve as a “Further Reading” segment.

  29. Michael Harris
    August 2nd, 2009 at 15:44 | #29

    John, for this particular venture, I’d ditch footnotes and endnotes and go for the “Further discussion/reading” section/attachment/appendix to each chapter. I’m also old-fashioned enough to have it all in the same version of the book. By all means have some extended discussion elsewhere on a dedicated site on the web, but the non-specialist reader is your main target audience and the chapters need to flow (avoiding too much obtrusive detail and qualification), while ensuring there is access to enough information available to avoid the book simply being a collections of assertions and generalisations.

    “School of thought” treatments often have an element (mild or severe) of finger-pointing and name-calling about them. (“Those identifying themselves as belonging to School X tend to believe Y”, with the notion that Y as expressed is so self-evidently foolish that anyone in said school must be a nut or an ideological fanatic, or both.) The “Further discussion/reading” section should be able to provide some reasonable evidence of whether adherents of School X really do believe Y, and to what extent, and what that means, and where such beliefs were published, and how strongly they were expressed.

    This also helps anticipate the problem of “deniability” that a commenter somewhere cautioned against. (“Quiggin’s statements about Y are ridiculous and exaggerated, and it’s absurd to suggest I hold such a view literally.”)

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