There is a tendency in textbooks to leave ample margins for marginal notes and figures, as well as to leave readers space to include their own annotations. At the same time, some textbooks combine marginal notes and footnotes, sometimes within the same page (see, for example, page 2 of this set of lecture notes). This looks funny to me, mostly because in many of the textbooks I've seen there is no clear criterion of what should go as a margin note instead of a footnote, or vice versa (with some exceptions: the Feynman Lectures on Physics uses the margins exclusively for figures and small tables, and the very few footnotes are minor text-only digressions).

Question 1: is it advisable to combine footnotes and margin notes in the same text? For example, Edward Tufte's books dispense with footnotes entirely. I think this is a very elegant solution, but do you guys have any idea how hard it is to write a whole textbook without text footnotes at all?

Question 2: If one wants to include both footnotes and margin notes, what should go where?

  • 2
    (a) We are writers, not typesetters / book designers. Your question is beyond our expertise and the focus of this site. (b) Your question is much too broad. It pertains to so many factors – among them readership, scholarly discipline, publisher, content – that it is impossible to give a comprehensive answer. (c) Textbooks are usually not created by one author alone, but are planned by the publisher and author together. Questions of book design will thus be answered in a process that involves experts from the publishing house (including marketers) and the author.
    – user5645
    May 29, 2015 at 8:57
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    If you want to go the uncommon and likely not successful way of creating a textbook without being contracted to do so by a publisher, I would recommend that you use a book from your field and for the same target audience as an example and emulate that.
    – user5645
    May 29, 2015 at 8:58

2 Answers 2


In relation to the Feynman Lectures on Physics and his own works, Edward Tuft notes in response to Sidenotes v Footnotes:

[T]here needs to be worthwhile material that naturally belongs in the margin. If the marginal materials are simply references, then the standard footnotes (at the bottom of each page, not ganged together at the end of the document) are fine. Maybe the empty space in the margin can be left for marginal notes written by the readers, if any.

Earlier on, he also points out that the page width dictated the use of the two-column format, simply because 8.5 inch page width "is too wide for a single column of type; thus 2 columns of text are often used in books with an 8.5 inch page width. In general, a line of text should not be more than 2 or 3 alphabets long, unless there is spacious leading."

So, it would appear that the use of margins had more to do with the size of the page and making sure lines of text were not too long than any sort of requirement to leave space for readers to make notes.

Therefore, in relation to your first question, I would defer to Tuft's reasoning: default to footnotes if your materials are simply references. If they're not, then I would suggest usage of side-notes would make sense instead of footnotes.

Using both together may be necessary if you have a large number of notes, or limited margin space, or even if the places where the notes exist mean that placing them in the margin would cause potential issues. Your example lecture notes has a good illustration of this on page 6, where points 4 and 5 are located on the same line. Note that side notes are (for the most part) not numbered, because they are parallel to the text in question. Placing them in the margin would have caused issues since they refer to the same line.

You could also try make a distinction between footnote material and side note material, and this leads into your second question. I would suggest the following: side notes are exceptionally useful to provide some information that helps explain extra information without the reader having to scroll to the bottom of the page and then back again. It only makes sense if you've got the space for it, and it improves legibility, rather than hinders it.

A good example is something like a very specific technical word definition, or symbol definition (both of which your example of lecture notes does). Your lecture notes example seems to adhere to this for the most part, but it's not a hard and fast rule. If anything, what to put where seems to be dictated by expedience: length of the note, size of the printed page, placement of the note, the type of note etc.

My personal preference would be to choose side notes (print format permitting) for those cases where there is very useful, extra information to elaborate on what's being read that the reader should know, while footnotes are left for those cases where there's a reference, the sidenote would have been too long, there were too many side notes which hindered legibility, or the information itself is something that the reader may need, but is not necessary for overall understanding of the subject. However, like I say, the underlying criteria seems to be more related to the print format, and experience, than anything else.


Actually to pose the question is to answer it.

In all the varied and interesting examples you refer to Form Follows Function 1).

This means the the characteristics of the material dictate the form in which they end up. Of course under the guidance of author and publisher. Please note that experienced authors tend to produce more effective results: Textual, layout wise, etcetera.

So if you encounter the opportunity to decide actual usage, play around, look around, make it the best you can and enjoy the ride. Best of luck!

1) Form Follows Function

Form Follows Function is a principle associated with modernist architecture and industrial design in the 20th century. The principle is that the shape of a building or object should be primarily based upon its intended function or purpose.

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