A farewell to ibid: Editing footnotes

A farewell to ibid: Editing footnotes

April 26, 2019 By Cathy Hannabach and Sarah Grey Resources

As editors from around the United States and the world gathered in Providence, Rhode Island, for the annual ACES conference, there was plenty of merriment — not to mention a bit of tongue-in-cheek mourning — as we began our session on editing footnotes, titled “A Farewell to Ibid.”

At the 2018 ACES conference, the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) released its 17th edition. Like all CMOS updates, which happen roughly once a decade, this one contained plenty of changes to keep up with how quickly technology shifts our reading and writing habits. One such change was retiring ibid., the abbreviation (short for Latin ibidem, or “in the same place”) used to tell readers that the endnote or footnote they’re looking at refers to the same source as the previous note. Ibid. has confused generations of young readers (as a teen, Sarah got it mixed up with Ovid). But thanks to ebooks, which often display only one citational note at a time, the way we read footnotes and endnotes has changed — and that means the most straightforward way to tell readers where to look is simply to use shortened citations for repeated references.

It’s a great example of how economic, technological, and societal changes also change language. And as much as we editors love to get sentimental about our favorite words and the knowledge that marks us as book lovers, we do well to embrace such changes.

Having bid farewell to ibid., we also discussed the ins and outs of footnotes and endnotes and how they can change the conversation between text and reader, as the author interjects helpful ideas, links readers to other material, translates unfamiliar words and concepts, or whispers sarcastic asides in the reader’s ear. Footnotes can even layer an additional text onto the base text, and novels such as Jordy Rosenberg’s Confessions of the Fox make them a key component of the narrative.

We also looked at how editors and writers decide when to use endnotes versus footnotes. Depending on what they’re for, in which context, and how we want readers to interact with them, we handle them differently. Do we want the notes right up against the text, or should they have some distance? Are they crucial reading for everyone or a helpful supplement for an interested few? Do they distract the reader from the text? What about separating notes, with discursive footnotes close to the text and citational endnotes tucked away in the back?

Finally, we offered some advice for editors whose authors are a little too enthusiastic about notes. Is the author citing everyone and everything under the sun twice per sentence? We can help them let go by noting what’s useful and when they’ve crossed the line from clarity into overkill. The politics of citations matter, especially in academic texts, but it’s important for authors to trust the reader to make sense of the text. For authors who use footnotes as a dumping ground for anything they can’t bear to cut from the text, we suggested another option: put them in a “sandbox” file for use in another manuscript, but let them depart from this one.

It’s easy for editors to treat notes as an afterthought, but by approaching them with craft and care, we can help make them a helpful, approachable, and useful part of any text.

Cathy Hannabach is the CEO of Ideas on Fire, and loves helping progressive, interdisciplinary academics rock their careers and build the worlds they want to see. She’s the author of “Book Marketing for Academics” and “Blood Cultures: Medicine, Media, and Militarisms,” and host of the Imagine Otherwise podcast.

Sarah Grey is the owner of Grey Editing in Philadelphia and loves working with authors to help their voice and message shine. She is an ACES Robinson Prize laureate and is active in the editing and writing communities. She writes about editing, language, food, politics, and more.

Photo by Joao Cruz on Unsplash

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