Non-fiction detritus

They made me do it - in Gravity I lost the battle.
But at least the note is funny.
Although I still have yearnings to write fiction, I have to accept that, on the whole, I am a non-fiction writer, and it is something I very much enjoy doing. But there is one aspect of putting together a non-fiction book that really gets on my nerves, and that's the bit that has leaked through from textbooks and other academic literature. I hate doing notes, cross-references and the like.

I feel I have to put them in. The publisher tends to insist on notes, and I know they will moan if I don't stick in a few random cross-references. But, really! Does anyone ever follow a cross-reference? Nah, they're just there as a sort of intellectual security blanket. I occasionally get the urge to put in totally random page numbers - but of course I  don't.

And don't get me started on notes.

I have a regular battle with publishers over these bits of useless information. I don't really want to do notes at all, but if I have to, which is usually the case, I insist on putting them in with page references on the note, but nothing in the main text. A couple of times (as in the illustration) a publisher has pulled numbered references on the main text on me, converting my original to this format, and I hate it. Numbered references break up the reading flow. This isn't a text book. It isn't a reference book. It's popular science - a book that should read fluidly. However subtle you make it, a numbered reference in the text will distract you.

What it won't do, though, is send the reader scurrying to the back of the book to follow it up. Because no one looks at them. Well almost no one. The only people who ever make use of reference notes are other authors who are cribbing bits out of your book and want to have an identified source. For their notes. Anyone else who claims to enjoy ploughing through notes like this is just showing off.

Oddly, though, I have just gone against my 'breaks the flow' rule with a book I have in the edit for later in the year. For reasons I don't understand, it cried out as I wrote it to have little expansion notes at the bottom of the page, with their inevitable numbers or asterisks in the text. I really don't know why it happened. It's a bit like when fiction authors say that a character does something they didn't expect. It just seemed the right thing to do.

But this is quite different from end notes that are just references to sources. They are cringe-makingingly painful. Publishers please take note (ahem).


  1. I beg to differ. I LOVE notes.

  2. Notes gathered together at the end of the book have another pernicious effect in these days of ebooks. The Kindle tells you that you still have 20% of the book left to read but then the main text surprisingly ends, with the last section being the notes. The ending creeps up on you unawares, leaving you feeling cheated.

  3. I love notes too. Currently reading Bad Pharma, and although I do not follow every reference (I want to finish the book before the end of the millenium) I do read pretty much all notes. Ditto when I read Bad Science.

    Further away from pop sci, when I read both The Gulag Archipelago and The Short Twentieth Century, I read all the notes in there as well. I can understand people who want to skip them, not everyone is a complete nerd, but I really love having them there.

  4. Sigh. I ought to point out 'cromercrox' is an editor, so has a strange disposition to notes.

    Also, as I mentioned with the book I'm currently writing, I'm not dead against notes if they are easy to get to and add interesting information. It's notes at the back of the book that are just page references to sources (which surely no one enjoys reading?!) I was moaning about.

  5. I like notes that add an extra bit of information, but I hate page references. The worst case is when the two are mixed up at the end of the book.

    Interesting asides at the bottom of the page please, and dull references at the end where I can ignore them. That should be a rule for all non-fiction publishers.

    I agree with Frank too, that there should be a way to make it clear in ebooks where the book ends and the index starts...

  6. An interesting discussion from a reader's perspective; I read a lot of history and expect to see notes, footnotes and references collected together either at the end of chapters or better at the end of the book where they can be left ignored until or unless required. To my mind they're equivalent to the underwater part of an iceberg which supports the author's ideas.

    Not so with e-books however where a note (or clickable internet link) can take you off into the ether on a voyage of discovery which the author may not have properly researched. In other words it's like diving underwater on your iceberg and resurfacing some distance away on another possibly more interesting one. Which can be exciting but more often frustrating because it's not always a simple matter to navigate back to where you started.


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