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young white paper writer facing the choice between footnotes and endnotes

Footnotes or endnotes in a white paper?

You gathered a ton of evidence for your white paper.

Now how are you going to present it?

You have three possible ways to provide a source in a white paper:

  • a footnote at the bottom of the page
  • an endnote at the end of the document
  • a citation within the regular flow of the text

Naturally, each approach has its own strengths and drawbacks, as summed up in the table below.

 

TypeProsCons
FootnotesGive a more academic look and highlight your researchInterrupt the flow by directing your eyes away from the text
EndnotesDon't distract readersBury your research at the end where few readers see it
In-text citationsDon't distract readers since sources are integrated with the text like in a magazine storyAdd extra words and can sound clumsy or forced if not done expertly

 

So which format do you use when?

Here are my recommendations:

Use footnotes if you have strong research from sources you want to highlight and an audience used to somewhat more formal white papers.

Use endnotes if you have weaker sources or so many that you don’t want to distract readers from the flow of your argument.

Use in-text citations if you have only a few sources and don’t think your readers want to look at references.

What if you just can’t decide? In that case, choose the least intrusive approach: endnotes.

Footnotes or Endnotes?

The immediacy of footnotes

In a white paper, most footnotes give the source for a quote, fact, or number in the text.

You seldom see running commentary on the text, as in a textbook or academic journal.

Footnotes work well in the most research-based flavor of white paper, the problem/solution.

They’re somewhat useful for a backgrounder with any endorsements from third parties about the benefits of the offering being discussed.

But footnotes are not at all useful for a numbered list, where the emphasis is on provocative ideas, not scholarship.

The finality of endnotes

Since endnotes are gathered together at the end of a white paper, they’re much less evident than bottom-of-the-page footnotes.

Because endnotes are less intrusive, they also hide away much of the research that went into a white paper.

Few readers ever look at the last page of a white paper to check a reference.

But endnotes can be useful for a white paper:

  • When you have few sources
  • When you have so many sources that every page would be cluttered with footnotes
  • When the offering being discussed is so affordable or essential that B2B buyers will not study it for long
  • When the audience is mainly small to medium-sized business people, who may not have time to check sources

And whenever it’s a tossup between different approaches, I suggest endnotes.

You can let Word place all your endnotes on the very last page of your white paper, under a major heading like “References” or “Sources.”


Tip: Yes, you can get rid of that annoying thick bar that Word inserts at the top of your endnotes. Here’s how:

  1. On the View tab, select Draft.
  2. On the References tab, select Show Notes.
  3. From the pull-down menu at the top of the Endnotes pane, select Endnote Separator.
  4. Select the horizontal rule and click Delete to erase it.
  5. Then use the View tab to go back to the view you normally use.

Presto! One less annoying rule getting in your way.


The tidiness of in-text citations

Magazines and newspapers don’t use footnotes. Every quote and statistic is sourced with an in-text reference, something like this…

“Footnotes and endnotes are soooo old-fashioned,” declared copywriter Ima Writer in her April 2013 column in White Papers Today. “All the cool kids today are using in-text citations.”

See how smooth this can be?

For more examples, you can pick up any magazine to see just how journalists do it.

The nice thing about in-text citations is they’re so tidy.

You don’t have to look anywhere else on the page or in the document. The whole reference is in one spot.

The only downside is that these citations add more words. And if you’re not careful, they can lead to some clunky-sounding sentences.

But in-text citations can deliver the best of both worlds.

Like a footnote, the whole reference is on the same page—but like an endnote, it doesn’t disrupt your reading experience.

This approach may be better for a backgrounder or numbered list, where you’re not trying to showcase your research.

In a problem/solution flavor, you may still prefer to use footnotes to highlight all the research that went into your white paper.


This article is a brief excerpt from White Papers for Dummies by Gordon Graham.

With dozens of tips and best practices for planning, producing, and promoting effective white papers, White Papers for Dummies is the most comprehensive guide to white papers ever published.

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About Gordon Graham

Author of close to 300 white papers on everything from choosing enterprise software to designing virtual worlds for kids, for clients from Silicon Valley to Switzerland, from tiny startups to 3M, Google and Verizon. Also wrote White Papers for Dummies which earned 50 5-star ratings on Amazon. And Gordon was recently named 2019 Copywriter of the Year by AWAI.

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3 Comments

  1. Jerzy on April 25, 2018 at 9:18 am

    I have a feeling the text suggests that you have to choose between the 3 options. Is that really so? I believe it is quite normal to use footnotes and endnotes or even all the 3 ways together in academic papers.
    Say you want to use citation but you decided to go for endnotes. You can’t leave in-text citation without pointing out the source right on the spot (be it via the “magazine/newspaper way” or using footnotes), right?
    Does decision to use endnotes automatically mean you have to resign from in-text citation (or footnotes)?

    • Gordon Graham on May 2, 2018 at 10:56 am

      Interesting question, Jerzy. Sure, you could say something like, “as comedienne Mercy Major joked in her recent HBO special…” and also include an endnote with more specifics. There are no absolute standards in white papers, and no authorities to impose them.

      The main rule of thumb: Be consistent in how you handle sources WITHIN any one white paper, and ideally ACROSS all the white papers any one company publishes.

      • Jerzy on May 2, 2018 at 11:35 am

        Thanks for your reply!

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