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Footnotes for white papers 101

Footnotes are an essential ingredient of a persuasive white paper.

It’s not difficult to write down your views.

It’s much harder to find compelling evidence to back up those views.

colourful_stack_of_books - Footnotes for white papers 101Footnotes help your white paper convey more authority than a simple blog post or opinion piece.

Footnotes help build your argument and prove that you did your homework.

But most writers have never thought much about footnotes since, well, college.

To help you use footnotes effectively, here are answers to some frequently asked questions about them.

Q: How can I tell when I need a footnote?

Whenever you define a term, find a source for your definition. Example: “PII is any information that can link an account number to a specific person.”

Whenever you give a number, date, or statistic, back it up with a reliable source. Example: “Since 2000, more than 200 million accounts have been exposed in security breaches in the U.S. alone.”

Whenever you state a controversial view, include a reference to help quiet the doubts that arise in the reader’s mind. Example: “By now, the cloud is perfectly secure for any enterprise.”

Note how all three examples look questionable without any sources. Each one would be much stronger with a footnote that gave a precise reference.

Q: Which are better: footnotes or endnotes?

As you know, a footnote falls at the bottom of a page, while an endnote is placed at the end of a document. This small detail makes a big difference.

Footnotes provide immediate credibility. Many readers glance down the page to see them, so they tend to be noticed. Footnotes look scholarly and suggest that a document is well-researched.

Endnotes are more tidy, since they do not break up the reading experience of a page. But fewer people flip back to see them, so endnotes tend to add less authority to a document.

It’s your choice which format you use.

For a longer discussion of this question, see my article here.

Q: How much text can I legally quote in a white paper?

You’re generally safe to quote a sentence or two from any published source like a newspaper, magazine, blog or company website, as long as you give proper credit.

Some say that you can legally use 200 or 300 words from any source. But this isn’t carved in stone.

According to the U.S. Copyright Office, “there is no formula to ensure that a predetermined percentage or amount of a work—or specific number of words, lines, pages, copies—may be used without permission.” [1]

Copyright material can be quoted for comment, education, parody, reporting, or research under “fair use” provisions.

Here is the key question to ask: Am I costing someone money to quote what I want from their material?

Here’s a thought experiment. Suppose someone wrote a book called 10 Dumb Things IT Managers Do to Undermine Their Careers.

If you come along and quote one of their 10 points, along with the full title and publisher, you likely won’t hurt sales of that book. You could even say you helped promote it.

But if you copy all 10 points with a fair chunk of text under each item, that’s giving away too much of someone else’s content.

The author and publisher could well argue that you hurt sales and cost them money.

To be practical, no one sues anyone else unless there’s a great deal of money at stake. Just be reasonable, and you shouldn’t have any legal problems.

Q: When do I need permission to quote from another document?

Some publishers that produce premium newsletters, market research, or other original material want you to ask permission before you quote anything from them.

Some industry analysts like Gartner try to enforce this policy.

If you simply want to quote one factoid that was already widely reported by other websites or publications, you can likely skip getting permission.

But if you grab all the best insights from a report priced at $3,995 and put them into your own white paper, the publisher may get pretty annoyed.

Can you blame them?

Once again, ask yourself the key question: Am I costing someone money to quote what I want from their material?

If you do want to quote from a high-priced report, always consider asking permission from the publisher. You can usually find contact information at the front of the report.

Q: How should I format my footnotes?

Here are two down-to-earth principles for formatting footnotes in a white paper:

  1. A footnote must provide enough detail for an interested reader to find that source if they wish.
  2. Footnote formats must be consistent within any white paper, and ideally across all white papers from a company.

Most white paper sponsors and readers will not notice much beyond these basics. You simply want your footnotes to be clear, accurate and complete.

For example, here is the format I use for footnotes in my white papers:

X: Author Name, “Title of Book or Article”, Publication (for articles), Publisher, date, page

To avoid any confusion, I give dates with the day first as in “13 March 2016” in the way more popular in Europe. Even if someone has never seen this format in their life, it’s abundantly clear.

Q: How can I cite a webpage?

If your source is a blog or website, you can append a URL to a footnote to show where and when you found the document online. For example:

retrieved 20 March 2016 from

Q: Where can I find out more about footnotes?

If you want to venture deeper, there are several styles for academic footnotes, including:

Don’t worry: The differences between them are immaterial to any B2B white paper readers.

But if you happen to be writing a white paper for academics, they may well notice. In this case, pick one footnote style and stick to it carefully, or have an academic review your formatting before you publish.


[1]: “More Information on Fair Use,” U.S. Copyright Office, retrieved 27 February 2016 from 


How do you use footnotes in white papers? Which type and style do you prefer? Please leave your comments below.

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About Gordon Graham

Worked on 320+ white papers for clients from Silicon Valley to Switzerland, on everything from choosing enterprise software to designing virtual worlds for kids, for clients from tiny startups to 3M, Google, and Verizon. Wrote White Papers for Dummies which earned 60+ 5-star ratings on Amazon. Won 16 awards from the Society for Technical Communication. Named AWAI 2019 Copywriter of the Year.

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  1. RockyBallad on August 27, 2015 at 5:53 am

    Yes, you are right on two counts: footnotes are essential to give a paper credibility, and I haven’t used footnotes in any paper since…well, college. I will keep this in mind when writing and doing my research.

  2. Esther Carlson on April 5, 2018 at 1:24 pm

    Thank you for this clear coverage about using footnotes in white papers. Using the European data format is interesting. Appreciate it!

  3. Vasu on May 30, 2019 at 7:48 am

    What’s your opinion on using hyperlinks in the white paper, as you did for the Question to find out more about footnotes? In that case, would we still need footnotes?

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