I originally posted this note on Google+ in March 2018. As Google+ is going to be closing to everybody except enterprise users next year, I’m moving some posts that I’d like to keep. This is one of them.
Endnotes are the worst. If you’re reading a book, whether it’s print or electronic, you have to either flip back and forward between your position in the text and the notes at the end, or give up on reading the notes entirely. In a web browser, they’re a bit better because you can open two windows side by side and read them in tandem but this requires extra work from the reader and means you have to scroll two windows instead of one. Really, there’s no excuse for endnotes, particularly since we’re all — authors, editors, typesetters, readers — using software which is more than capable of calculating how much space a footnote will take up and balancing it with the length of the main text.
For years, because of that, I’ve insisted on using footnotes wherever references are required: from my early undergraduate essays (written with Claris Works, Word 6 or Lotus AmiPro) to my doctoral thesis and beyond (Nisus Writer Pro, Pages and — on Windows — Word 2013). The technology makes footnotes easy, I thought, so why in the world would anybody not use them? And that holds true, so long as you’re writing for print (either actual or some onscreen representation of the printed page). But much of the time, these days, we’re not. What if you’re going to publish on the web (or an ebook — which, based as it is on html, actually has a lot more in common with a web page than with a printed book)?
I used to think that not having a “footnote” element in the html specification was a drastic oversight (compare LaTeX, for example). Be that as it may, it’s an omission we have to live with, so when I wanted to adapt an academic essay to post it on Medium Update —I’ve since moved it to my own site, I went through it substituting author-date references for the footnotes. I started off doing it resentfully, thinking that the technology ought to be more flexible and capable than this. But I ended up thinking that the author-date approach made the essay marginally more readable.
Footnotes aren’t as distracting as endnotes but they do increase the reader’s cognitive load somewhat. There’s the constant temptation to flick your eyes down to the bottom of the page and back up and, even if you resist it, the difference in font size and horizontal alignment between the text and the superscript numbers can also make concentration more difficult. Of course, citation isn’t the only purpose of footnotes. They can also hold digressions, asides and comments. Again, however, I now think it’s less distracting if such discursive notes are reworked to incorporate them into the text, or included as parentheses (or, if neither of these alternatives is appropriate, discarded). Why make things more complicated than they need to be?