Notes, Endless Notes

Beyond (possibly) acknowledgments and an author’s bio, fiction writers and editors generally don’t have to think much about backmatter. That’s a publishing term for the part of a book that comes after the main text ends.

Writers and editors of some kinds of nonfiction don’t have to think much about backmatter either. Memoirs and how-to books, for instance, may include a few endnotes and a “for further reading” list, but that’s usually it.

I edit a lot of the other kind of nonfiction. University press books, academic papers and dissertations, trade books about history or current events, that sort of thing. (Note:  “Trade” in this sense means more or less anything that isn’t academic.) These works are based on research, so documentation is crucial to their credibility.

If you’re somewhat familiar with a work’s subject matter, a skim through its bibliography can give you an idea of well the author has done his or her homework.

All sources are not created equal. Multitudinous notes and a long bibliography alone do not necessarily translate into a reliable book. Maybe 20 years ago I copyedited a mass-market book about UFOs. It cited plenty of sources, many of them on the World Wide Web (which was pretty new at the time). Fact-checking was part of my job, so I checked all the URLs. Woo-whee! This was my introduction to conspiracy theories about UFOs, alien abductions, chemtrails, and what has come to be known as the alt-right. The “evidence” for UFOs was internally consistent; it just wasn’t linked to the world of verifiable facts.

The job I just finished was thoroughly, even exhaustively, sourced. I was warned before I took it that the (electronic) manuscript was about 750 pages long and about a third of those pages were backmatter — endnotes and bibliography. Fine with me: I actually like copyediting this stuff. My detail-oriented brain kicks in, recognizes missing info and info out of place, clarifies inconsistencies, and knocks everything into shape.

Different fields and disciplines have different citation styles. Most of the books I work on follow one of two systems laid out in the Chicago Manual of Style,  often with some adaptations. I expected this one to do likewise.

Well, it did and it didn’t. In Chicago style, the titles of books and comparable works (such as films, TV shows, albums, full-length musical works, and the names of journals and newspapers) are generally italicized. Shorter works, like short stories, poems, songs, journal articles, and book chapters, are set in roman and with quotation marks. In the Works Cited section of this job, there were no italics and no quotation marks anywhere. My Chicago-trained eye had to look hard to tell the books from the articles. I had to figure out which was which and apply the appropriate style. I was warned about this too. “Billable hours,” said my production editor.

While editing the text (which presented few problems and was very interesting), I flipped back and forth between it and Works Cited, doing maybe 10 pages of entries at a time. I was cruising. It was a big job but for sure, I thought, I was going to make the July 5 deadline.

Then, around July 1, I took my first hard look at the endnotes. OMG. Most of the notes contained three to five citations in author-date style, often along with some text and a full citation or two. It was a hybrid of Chicago‘s two styles: notes and bibliography, and author-date. I’d never seen such a thing.

Author-date style is common in academic writing. You’re reading along and you come to a sentence like this:

The aardvark population of West Tisbury has been stable since 1998 (Sturgis 2016).

For the full citation, you flip to the Works Cited section, where you should find something like this:

Sturgis, S. J. 2016. “Do Aardvarks Help Curb Tick-Borne Diseases?” Journal of Creative Solutions 14(2): 37–42.

You should be able to find the source article, “Do Aardvarks Help Curb Tick-Borne Diseases?,”  on pages 37–42 of volume 14, issue 2, of the Journal of Creative Solutions.

In a work that uses the notes and bibliography style, instead of “(Sturgis 2016)” you’ll probably find something like this:

The aardvark population of West Tisbury has been stable since 1998.3

The superscript “3” tells you to go to note 3 for the current chapter, where you should find this:

Susanna J. Sturgis,  “Do Aardvarks Help Curb Tick-Borne Diseases?,” Journal of Creative Solutions 14, no. 2 (February 2016): 37–42.

In most cases (newspaper articles are a frequent exception), the work will also be listed in the bibliography:

Sturgis,  Susanna J.  “Do Aardvarks Help Curb Tick-Borne Diseases?” Journal of Creative Solutions 14, no. 2 (Spring 2016): 37–42.

In my author’s hybrid style, most endnotes included multiple author-date citations, each one of which had to be cross-checked on first appearance with the Works Cited list. I split my Word screen so I could flip back and forth easily between Notes and Works Cited . . . and realized PDQ that many — perhaps as many as 20 percent — of the works short-cited in the notes were not in Works Cited at all. And that some of those that were had discrepancies in the year of publication or the spelling of the author’s name.

Where discrepancies could be quickly resolved with an online search, I Googled. For each missing citation I typed a query in the notes: “Work not in Works Cited. Please add.” This quickly dwindled to the shorthand “Not in WC.” At first I typed a placeholder in the Works Cited list for the missing citation, but after chapter 4 I realized this was taking much too much time so I stopped.

Still, the billable hours were hefty, and I expect to pay off my credit card (dental bills!) and catch up with my quarterly tax payments when that invoice gets paid.

The moral of the story for writers: If you’re citing any sources in your work, get all the details and get them right. Familiarize yourself with the citation style(s) commonly used in your field. If you’re writing for a general audience in the U.S., Chicago will usually do. Your copyeditor will thank you, and if you’re paying the freight yourself, you’ll save a bunch of money.


2 thoughts on “Notes, Endless Notes

  1. I often do the backmatter first, partly to get a wider sense of the subject matter and also to avoid this kind of time crunch caused by UFOs from left field.


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