No One Reads Footnotes - Really?! On My Dislike of Blanket Statements

I just finished another book last night: "Finish" by Jon Acuff. As I was getting through the final pages, including acknowledgements and chapter notes—yeah, I’m that person who actually reads those sections— I was reminded of a comment I received from an editor as I was shopping for someone to edit what I thought would be my first book. When she saw that I had footnotes quoting some of my sources, she authoritatively said:

“No one reads footnotes anymore.”

I was taken aback. Not just by the statement, but by her all-or-nothing position on the practice. 

That definitive statement has stayed with me, nagging me from time to time.

It has gnawed at me for a number of reasons:

  1. It’s a false statement. 
  2. Footnotes offer additional context.
  3. Footnotes are the predecessor to the hyperlink.
  4. Footnotes show respect for the reader.
  5. The all-or-nothing statement was...ignorant.

1. It’s a False Statement

Blanket statements, by their very nature are usually false. Ok, I’m a sample of one, but I can’t believe I’m the last book reader who consumes footnotes. Incidentally, if you’ve read The Big Short and you didn’t read the footnotes, you’ve missed half the fun of consuming that book!

2. Footnotes Show Respect for the Reader

I think footnotes are a great way for an author to show respect for his/her readers. Not having footnotes or, at a minimum, chapter notes at the end of the book is like having a conversation with someone and, when they make a point you want to know more about, they can't offer more or can’t even quote a source. In essence, they’re likely sharing opinion as fact, which is becoming increasingly common in this new world of sound bites. We don’t seem to seek nuance as much as we once did. And I think that's a shame because nuance is where the deep thinking happens.

I don’t really want to learn from someone who doesn't offer context for a belief they're sharing, either from personal experience or based on research. Why would I? It doesn't seem like they've learned it themselves!

3. Footnotes Are the Predecessor to the Hyperlink

Footnotes are a way for the author to point to research and references that support an assertion/position/understanding on some aspect of a subject or field of study for those of us who want to dig deeper into a topic, without affecting the flow of the writing for those who don’t, or at least not right at that moment. 

Isn’t that what hyperlinks are? Here’s the thing though: you can’t hyperlink on paper. I know! Who knew?! I think that makes footnotes relevant in a world where we mine for more here and there, on an as-desired basis. Footnotes, like hyperlinks, are a heads up to the reader that there’s more available on the topic and that the author has a preferred source to suggest or more context via a personal experience.* 

4. Footnotes Show Respect

Footnotes are a way for an author to show respect and regard for his/her reader. Not having footnotes is like having a conversation with someone and, when they make a point you want to know more about or that you question, they don’t know more or can’t quote a source. What they might really be doing is sharing opinion as fact—or maybe bullshitting**—both of which are becoming increasingly common in this new world that glorifies the seven-second sound bite.

5. The Statement Was Ignorant

The biggest reason it nagged at me is that, because of its all-or-nothing position, the statement is ignorant. And it was a shock to hear it from her. This editor is SHARP. She’s a very bright woman and I’ve seen her in action as she delivers her own material as a public speaker. I have no doubt she’s an excellent editor and I appreciate all the feedback she offered. But I never reached out to her again. That statement made me walk away. 

I’ve only come to realize why she isn't for me recently, though I knew there was something. I just couldn't put my finger on it. It was that one blanket statement that turned me off. I don't think that the one statement means that's how she thinks about everything but it did cause me not to want to pursue that professional relationship any further.

I just can’t see myself working with someone who might be closed-minded, especially in the area they're working in. The impression that gives me is that I’m dealing with someone who thinks they have it all figured out, someone who thinks they’re done learning or at least done reevaluating beliefs from time to time. It feels ill-advised.

That’s why I prefer not to work with a blanket-statement thinker, if I can help it. 

"Maybe" is Not a Dirty Word

I want to work with people who say “maybe,” with people who are not afraid to consider options. I want to work with people who are willing to noodle and go through the mess of figuring out what might be better as opposed to thinking they know what’s best right out of the gate. I want someone who appreciates that we live in a world that isn’t black and white but thousands of shades of grey.

I find the statement "it depends" thoughtful and refreshing. "I don't know" or "I'm not sure" are also music to my ears because they make me think the person is engaged and hasn't gone on automatic pilot.

These reassuring statements remind me of a finding I first read in the book "Peak" by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool: experts who have been practicing for years (ie have lots of experience) were, in some cases, no better than professionals a few years out of school, possibly because of a failure to seek out continuous learning opportunities and emulate best practices as these evolve.  

All this noodling from a simple blanket statement I heard almost two years ago. Go figure.

What do you think of the above? Agree? Disagree? Great! And please let me know why below.

*Ironically, here's a footnote to capture an additional thought: I find footnotes less distracting than hyperlinks. It's unfortunate but the research is showing that hyperlinks in documents cause readers to lose the flow of what they're reading because the hyperlinks point so something else the reader should look at in that moment and the fear of lacking context often leads to a click. That click can then lead to other clicks and, before you know it, you have no idea what you were reading about in the first place. For more on that, see the book "The Shallows" by Nicholas Carr (p. 90 to be exact, but the book as a whole is a good read).

**Harry G. Frankfurt's book "On Bullshit" is also worth checking out. It served as a useful reference to help me differentiate between bullsh*tters and liars. And yes, there is a difference.

Image credit/copyright: Keerati /

This post contains affiliate links to Purchases made via these links help support the F2P blog. It doesn't cost you anything and helps cover ongoing expenses associated with maintaining this blog. Thank you for your support.