Does Your Nonfiction Book Need Footnotes?

You’re writing your book, making occasional references to other books, experts, and information sources. Now you’re wondering whether you need footnotes or if there’s an easier alternative. Good news: most of the time, there is.

when use footnotesTypically, academic, trade, and technical papers employ footnotes, while popular writing does not. That means if you’re writing a self-help or inspirational book, footnotes probably are not necessary. The exception would be if you’re making a lot of references—more than ten or fifteen in the book. Then footnotes would be appropriate, even if you write in a popular genre.

Of course, not needing footnotes doesn’t mean you’re exempt from giving credit when you borrow another writer’s words or quote facts from other sources. It just means you don’t have to give credit via a footnote. Instead, simply include a sentence in the body of the text that mentions where the quote or information is taken from.

This can be done very informally. You only need to provide enough information that if your readers want to look up the source, they will be able to.

Here are a couple of examples:

Swhen use footnoteself-publishing authors, in the years ahead, will “have to raise the bar on their own offerings, collaborating with editors and designers while taking a more entrepreneurial approach to their work,” says Alex Palmer in his January 24, 2014 article in Publishers Weekly.

As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “To footnote or not to footnote, that is the question.”  

Okay, I made that last one up. But you can see from the examples how easy it is to credit your sources simply by telling the reader, in the body of the writing, what that source is when you make the reference or quotation.

when use footnotesWhy is it better in most cases for nonfiction authors not to use footnotes? Because typically you’re writing for the general public. People in general don’t like having to squint to read the tiny print at the bottom of the page—or worse, having to flip to the back of the book every few pages for footnotes at the book’s end.

We are a society of readers who are short on time and attention.  Getting your message across as quickly and simply as possible is a writing skill worth cultivating. This usually includes ditching the footnotes.

Jessi Rita Hoffman … book editing by an industry professional