Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Footnotes versus endnotes

I gave a writing seminar yesterday to a group of professionals. I've given this half-day seminar before and the question of whether to use footnotes or endnotes came up for the second time, so it seems to be a topic of interest to many business writers.

There's no definitive rule regarding using footnotes (which are the kind that appear on the bottom of each page) versus endnotes (the kind that appear at the end of the document). Of course, sometimes the decision is made for you, for example, when a publication you're writing for has a policy about which to use. (This is often the case if you're writing an article for a professional journal, or if you're writing a paper for a conference and the conference organizer has formal writer's guidelines.)

But, outside of the few situations where someone else is dictating which you should use, it's up to you to decide whether to go with footnotes or endnotes. There are pluses and minuses to each, so the best thing to do is weigh the factors for yourself and make a reasoned decision.

Pros and Cons of Endnotes
Here are some of the pros and cons I see related to using endnotes:

  • Endnotes are less distracting to the reader because they're out-of-sight.
  • If a reader wants to look at the text of a particular endnote, the reader has to flip to the end of the text to find the information -- this can be annoying. Also, depending on how they're created (continuous numbering or numbers that start over for each chapter), the reader may have to remember the chapter number as well as the endnote number in order to find the correct one.
  • Endnotes don't clutter up the page.
  • Depending on the nature of the document (for example, a contract or an offer of some kind), readers may have a negative reaction to endnotes (much like the proverbial "fine print" or hidden disclaimers that make an offer too good to be true) and may feel the writer is trying to hide something by burying it in a hard-to-find endnote.
Pros and Cons of Footnotes
Here are some pros and cons I see related to using footnotes:
  • People interested in reading the footnote can just glance down to find what they're looking for.
  • Footnotes can clutter up the page and can negatively impact the overall look of the page. (Depending on the layout of the page, for example, if there are multiple columns, you'll have to decide where the footnotes should appear. In other words, page design issues may come into play.)
  • If the footnotes are lengthy, there's a risk they could dominate the page, which isn't a good thing. (And of course, complicating this is the fact that some pages may be footnote-light, while others are footnote-heavy -- and usually you don't know this until the entire document is complete. But, thanks to advances in technology, with a bit of extra effort, footnotes can be converted to endnotes (and visa versa) at a fairly late stage of production, if necessary.)
Whether to use any kind of "note"
Of course, before choosing between footnotes or endnotes, I'm assuming you've made a reasoned decision about using any kind of "note". (I'll leave discussion of this issue to another blog entry, as this is getting rather long already.)

My thoughts...
On balance, I prefer footnotes because I like making it easy for the interested reader to find the information quickly. But, the impact footnotes will have on the layout, design or look of the page can easily outweigh my general preference -- so I'd make the decision on a document-by-document basis.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Ms. Sapona. Your blog appeared in my Google search results after looking for guidance on the difference between footnotes and endnotes. I lingered awhile among your most recent posts and wanted you to know that your commentary has been a been a breath of fresh air to me. Developing sound writing skills seems to be a diminishing artform and you give hope to the contrary. Be well.

10:20 a.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This may seem a bit tardy in coming to the party, by the other day, at Library Thing, I started a thread on this very topic. I prefer footnotes because of the ease of use, much as you do. Thank you for your interesting

But in your final 'con', you note, "If the footnotes are lengthy, there's a risk they could dominate the page, which isn't a good thing." It is my observation that if this is the case, most often that footnote might be better used within the text.

John Hindsill
Glendale, CA

8:01 p.m.  
Anonymous Sandy said...

I don't like how footnotes can dominate some pages and be sparse on others, but I do like the look of a couple footnotes on a page. That being said, I don't understand why you would want to use endnotes since you have to go to the back of the paper to check both the endnotes and the bibliography. It just seems redundant.

That is usually why I choose footnotes over endnotes; I just feel silly otherwise. :)

7:06 p.m.  
Blogger Natalie said...

Thank you, your article provided exactly what I was looking for. I think you're right, it depends on the document. I sometimes like when endnotes are provided at the end of a chapter so it's easier to find but doesn't crowd the page.

8:53 a.m.  

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