The Fine Art of Writing (and Reading) Informative and Interesting Footnotes and Endnotes | Tips on How to Get Your Research Published
There was a time when footnotes were a staple of scholarly writing, each page of a university press’s publications or an antiquarian society’s periodical blossoming along the bottom with blocks of tiny text and the odd combination of symbols connecting them to the body of larger type above. Nowadays, it is more likely that such a crop of potential footnotes would become endnotes, relegated to the back of the book in order to avoid cluttering the page for the reader. Perhaps this is a gain for some readers, but there can be no doubt that the practice tends to discourage all but the most determined researchers from reading those notes.
Some might argue that the notes are hardly worth reading in any case unless a particular source must be sought and consulted, but this is only partially true. Yes, footnotes (and endnotes) frequently contain references to the sources cited and discussed in a scholarly document. In today’s scholarship that is generally their primary function, but it is not their only function. Footnotes also provide space for an author to offer a kind of subtext to the main argument of a book or article. Related details and data that do not quite work in the midst of that argument and hints of debates past and present about key issues are only two of many possibilities that were once rather standard fare in scholarly notes.
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There can be no doubt that material of this kind is of interest to many readers and especially to those engaged in advanced research. More than one doctoral thesis has sprouted from the ideas bashed about in scholarly footnotes, and sometimes the information and resources gathered in a single note can be something akin to amazing. Of course such notes take a very long time to write. Each reference must be accurate, thorough and observe the style and format preferred by the publisher. Each bit of information must be correct and your perspective on it informed, even if it is something of a sideline in relation to your usual work. In addition, the writing style should be as formal and correct as that in the main body of your document – footnotes and endnotes are not the place for a point-form approach.
Great care must therefore be taken to produce truly useful and interesting notes, but if you have the opportunity to include footnotes or even endnotes in your manuscript, do consider using them to their full potential. Most publishers who allow notes are pleased to accept notes that contain more than just references, but if you are in any doubt, look at the notes in articles or books recently produced by the journal or publisher to which you intend to send your manuscript. The answer will usually lie there, but if not, contact the editor (or whoever might be appropriate in the particular case) and ask. Do keep in mind, however, that footnotes and endnotes are usually included in word and page counts, so keep an eye on your growing text and be sure that your subtext does not become so prolix as to exceed length and word limits.
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