Why you shouldn’t hate footnotes and endnotes

Everybody hates doing footnotes and endnotes.

But if you’re writing a book, you really ought to do them.

If you need motivation, you’ve come to the right place. Here are five reasons to do the right thing and cite your sources.

1 Don’t leave print readers at a disadvantage.

It’s so easy when you write online. You just add a link and you’re done.

But there are still more people who read books in print than online. They don’t deserve to be treated like second-class readers. If they want to know where you got your information, you need to tell them.

2 Prove you’re not making stuff up.

There are three kinds of facts in nonfiction writing: facts from your personal experience, facts from your firsthand interviews (also known as primary research), and published facts from other sources.

If you want people to believe your facts are accurate, you can start by showing the sources for what you write.

This gives people the ability to judge your credibility. If you are citing The Washington Post, ABC News, Pew Research, Snopes, and books by Daniel Kahneman, you look more believable. If you’re citing Occupy Democrats, Breitbart, InfoWars, random blogs, and some self-published screed you downloaded from Amazon, not so much.

3 Allow people to check your sources.

Sometimes I check the sources people cite . . . and find out they’ve misinterpreted what they’re reading.

For example, if you’re citing survey data, it matters whether the survey was conducted in 2018 or 2002.

If you stand behind what you wrote, your readers deserve the ability to check you. Without a footnote, they’ll just Google it — and may find information that’s the opposite of what you’re trying to prove.

4 Authors give appropriate credit — we help each other.

If somebody used your ideas and statistics, wouldn’t you want them to give you credit?

It’s simple courtesy: when you use my facts, you cite me, and when I use yours, I cite you. We all help each other out, and citations and footnotes are the medium of exchange.

In books I edit, I often see people say things like “Independents are 29% of voters.” I’d rather see “According to Ballot Access News, which tracks registrations by state, Independents are 29% of voters.” They did the work to compile the data — the least you could do is mention their name. (And in case you are wondering, citing source names in the text takes nothing away from you — it makes you more credible.)

And take the time to find the original source. Don’t cite article A that cites article B that cites source C: Cite source C directly.

Of course, you could ignore this and just write stuff without citing your sources at all. But that would make you a selfish ass who has refused to join the community of authors and thinkers. That won’t pay off the next time you need another author to help you out or do a blurb, for example.

5 It’s not that hard.

In the time you spend whining, you could have gotten started.

I recently created 134 footnotes for a friend whose book I edited. (Don’t ask me to do this for you — she’s a very dear friend and her book is going to be a masterpiece.) It took about nine hours.

Nine hours, you’re thinking. That’s a lot!

Actually, no. The book took hundreds and hundreds of hours to research, write, and compile. Given that, nine hours to get the footnotes right is a pittance.

And if you were careful to maintain links in your text, it’s easy to create the citations. There are even tools like EasyBib to help you out.

In fact, writing footnotes is a simple task requiring little intellectual effort, a nice break after all that writing and thinking you normally need to do. If you do them all in a row you get into a pleasant rhythm and time passes quickly.

I’ll tell you as secret. No one cares if your footnote formatting is exactly right. They just want to see the name of the source so they can check it. Forget the librarian looking over your shoulder — just think of the reader and what they want to know about the source (who wrote it, what publication, what date, what link).

(If you want to make it easy for readers to follow printed links, here’s a trick, but it’s not required.)

Here’s a way to get motivated. When you’re halfway done with the footnotes, eat a cookie or drink a nice glass of Scotch. When you finish, have another. Maybe thinking about that reward will keep you going.

Just do it

Maybe this post isn’t enough to motivate you. Maybe you think the level of effort for footnotes isn’t worth it, and you’ve exaggerated the imagined level of pain it will cause.

Would you make a piece of furniture and not sand and finish it?

Would you make a movie and leave out the music?

You’re not finished until the footnotes are done. So get to it. It’s the right thing to do.

And unlike flossing, you don’t have to do it every day — just once per book. So be a real author and write those footnotes.

(Go ahead and leave a comment here when you’re done and I’ll give you a nice virtual pat on the head.)

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  1. Coming from old-fashioned academia, I have found that notes are also a great place to insert really minor points or anecdotes that you want to mention without cluttering the main text. I always skim notes for further information beyond bibliographical facts. Sometimes they are significant to me — sometimes just amusing but adding to the argument.
    Another reason to use notes is that they can provide readers with sources of additional information that they may find useful though it is incidental to you.
    Always use notes in non-fiction — or your readers will wonder what is made up or exaggerated or simply wrong.

  2. Reading books from the old days is a great source of pleasure. And part of the pleasure is the wonderful footnotes many authors added. Long, rambling footnotes rich in information and insight. Nowadays, both MLA and APA discourage footnotes. The reasons for this are, apparently, a desire not to clutter the page, distracting the reader, etc.

    I don’t understand this new orthodoxy. It’s the ultimate dumbing down — “If it won’t go in your main text, it shouldn’t be there at all”. What is this? Some kind of anti-intellectualism? “Get to the point, cut out the bullshit!”

    You’re reading a book, after all. If you’re going to be distracted or annoyed by “excess information”, why are you reading a book at all?