Stop using unlinked footnotes, please!

Please, please, for the love of the 21st century, stop putting unlinked footnotes in your blog posts. I know, I know, “everyone” does it. But you guys, it’s really rude.

What’s an unlinked footnote? It’s when you write something, and then wanting to comment on what you just wrote (or give references or whatever), you put a little asterisk * or two ** or more *****. And then down below at the bottom of your post, you write your little comment.

Do you know what this does to your readers? They start reading your post. And then you force them to stop reading and scroll down to the bottom of the post to read the little thing you wrote there. And then scroll back up and do lots of visual search work to find where the left off reading the main text. This is a really rude thing to ask your readers to do online. Value their time. They will appreciate it.

Okay, so what should you do? I hear you say, “I’m busy, I can’t be bothered to do anything complicated.” Fine, then if you must write at peak laziness, do this: don’t use footnotes at all; use parenthesis. You could even go all fancy and use brackets or curly braces. Your readers will get used to it. They will understand that what you say is a parenthetical. { I mean how else would someone interpret a curly-braced comment? } You even save yourself the time of scrolling up and down to add the footnote when you’re writing. Peak laziness achieved!

Still really like footnotes? Okay, no problem. But link them. (Please link them!) The Web’s philosophical foundation centers around the “hyperlink,” which allows a reader to jump from place to place without having to move in a sequential fashion. This is what makes it so powerful. This is what makes it different from print books and newspapers and magazines. Harness that power!

You should ideally link both from your main text to your footnote and then back up from the footnote to where the reader left off in the main text, so you don’t leave them floundering. How do you do that? You use something called “anchor links,” which tells a browser what to show when the corresponding hyperlink is clicked. An anchor links is where a link points to.

If you’re on WordPress, do this when composing your post:

  1. Switch to “Text” mode from “Visual” mode. There’s a little tab to do this in the upper right, when you’re composing a new post.
  2. Find the place you want to link TO, i.e., the footnote itself at the bottom of the page. *
  3. BEFORE the footnote, type <p id="linkname"> and substitute a unique-to-that name for that footnote for linkname. (I use names like foot1 and foot2. So, for example: <p id="foot1">)
  4. Now you can go back to “Visual” mode.
  5. Go to the place in your main text where you want the footnote. Type in a footnote symbol such as ***** or [1], select the symbol, and then click the ‘Insert/edit link’ button in the WordPress toolbar.
  6. In the URL box, type #linkname, substituting the unique name that you chose in step 3. (For example: #foot1). Make sure the box for ‘Open link in a new tab’ is NOT checked.

And that’s it! You now send your readers automatically from your main text to your footnote with a single click. No scrolling or hunting needed. You should do the same thing for the reverse direction, allowing readers an easy way to jump back into the text. You can do this by using the caret symbol (^) as the link in the footnote [2], which has become the conventional way to do this.

If you’re on Blogger or any other blogging platform, the process is essentially the same. Go the the place where you can alter the HTML directly, add in the anchor link (step 3 above), and then make a link to the anchor using the # symbol with the anchor link name (step 6 above). You can search for specific directions for your blogging platform using the term ‘anchor link’ if you need more help. And I’m willing to bet dimes to donuts that there are plugins for all major platforms that will let you do anchor links with the click of a button.

So please link your blog footnotes (if you must use footnotes at all). It’s a little thing to do, and your readers will thank you for it.


* Here is a footnote!

***** Here is another footnote.

1. Don’t you think the numbered footnotes look better than all those asterisks? Who wants to count asterisks once you get above about three? You can get really fancy and use superscripted numbers to give your posts a polished look.[3]

2. ^ It would look like this. Click the little caret to go back to the main text.

3. To do this, go into “Text” mode and put <sup> before the [3] and </sup> after the [3].

Permanent link to this article: http://ecologybits.com/index.php/2016/02/08/stop-using-unlinked-footnotes/


1 ping

Skip to comment form

  1. Simon Leather

    Excellent – I am just in the process of writing a blog with three footnotes so will try this out and see how it goes 🙂

  2. Steve Heard

    Aha, I knew eventually your awesome blog would have something I disagree with!

    Please, please, please do not encourage me to use yet more parentheticals. I already use too many, and they’re far more obstrusive for a reader than a footnote (linked or not). They intrude; they demand attention; whereas readers can easily (and many do) (whoops, there’s a parenthetical) skip a footnote. Footnotes were invented for reason, and it’s a good reason!

    As for numbers vs. asterisks: I use asterisks for a reason you will probably call lazy, and I probably can’t argue: they strongly encourage me to limit my footnotes to about 3 or so per post. The awkwardness of footnote **** isn’t a bug, it’s a feature! They are also easier to spot visually in the text than numbers, which eases the navigational load for the reader.

    Another point: your linked footnotes only work, I think, for a reader who’s actually reading on your main WordPress site. Navigation fails spectacularly, for example, for an email follower reading a post in their email. Of course, you might consider that a feature too, since you may want them to click through to your post – but if so, you might want to use a “more” tag in the post.

    Having said all that – linking the footnotes does seem like one of those things that I should have been doing all along. Thanks for the tutorial; I’ll be trying it out.

    1. Margaret Kosmala

      It’s no fun having opinions if everyone always agrees with you. 🙂

      Thanks for the good point about footnote linking only working for people reading directly on your site. That’s how I read blogs, and I tend to forget that there’s a lot of different ways to read blogs.

  3. Paul M

    Stylistically, I think footnotes are much nicer than excessive use of parantheticals – but I love the linked footnotes – brilliant. Thanks so much for explaining the process so clearly.

    1. Margaret Kosmala

      I agree with you for print, where the reader can quickly find the footnote and then continue on. But for me, blog footnotes are like print endnotes — a pain for the reader. (And I’m overly fond of parentheses…)

  4. Simon Leather

    Just wondering why you say make sure you uncheck the open in new tab box? I quite like having links open in new windows as otherwise you can get ‘lost’ whilst reading the link. Testing this out with my next post (out soon) it worked quite well having the footnotes in a separate page. Well at least I thought so 🙂

    1. Margaret Kosmala

      It’s okay to have them open in new tabs, though that can be confusing to some people, perhaps. I suggest not doing it simply because it’s a closer parallel to someone scrolling down and then scrolling back up.

  5. Manu Saunders

    Thanks for the tips. I agree, the linked footnote idea looks neater and never knew how to do it. But every person’s blog is their castle! 🙂
    The purpose of footnotes is to provide clarification that may not be necessary for everyone to understand the main text. So individual readers make the personal choice to find the footnote or not, depending on whether they’re interested/don’t understand etc. Info in footnotes should not be necessary to understanding the main story, whereas parentheses are for short in-text clarifications that *are* essential to understanding the flow of the story. And, from a communication perspective, too many footnotes can make poor writing – if you can’t explain it in the text, or clarify it in a comment if someone happens to ask, then is it really important to the story? And if it’s a whole other story in itself, then there’s another blog post!

  1. Fancy Footnotes for the Fearless » EC0L0GY B1TS

    […] in February, I implored you to stop using unlinked footnotes in your blog posts. The intrepid Stephen Heard [1] of Scientist Sees Squirrel fame, not the 18th […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *