A Question of References
I’m working away on my book, but my progress is maddeningly slow. I’m getting hung up on really important questions of scope and tone, and I’m hoping that as I resolve these, the writing will start to come easier.
Here’s an important question that I’m struggling with, and I’d like your advice. How do you like to see references in a non-fiction book?
The writing in my book is like that in my science-based blog posts. I am basing it on lots of references and papers, but I am trying to frame the scientific questions with real-life stories from my experience and that of other parents.
When I submitted my book proposal, the peer reviewers responded that they thought an evidence-based book backed by references would be a unique and helpful resource to new parents. And based on the responses from you, the readers of my blog, I think you value this as well. So providing references and making them accessible to the reader is important to me.
When my editor and I were going over the book contract, the topic of how to handle references came up. Initially, he thought that I should avoid in-text references – either noted by author or by number. That is, he didn’t expect sentences like this made-up one: “In one surprising study, researchers from the University of Amazing found that children were more accepting of new foods when they XXX.57” Instead, he recommended simply providing a list of references, by chapter, at the end of the book, without necessarily linking each reference to the text describing it. After some discussion, he said he was open to me using in-text citations, but I also agreed to give some thought to different options.
I’m actually really uncomfortable writing about science without in-text citations. I’m used to science writing where you provide a reference for just about every single statement you make. That’s how I learned to write for scientific papers, and on the blog, I’ve continued with this style without much thought. In this style, I’m saying, “Don’t take my word for it – this is coming from these scientists who researched the question.” I’m not writing this book from a place of authority but rather from one of curiosity. I’m not claiming to be an expert with all the answers but rather a person who has questions and is willing to dig for the answers. And as a reader, I like being able to flip to the reference list at the end of the chapter or the back of the book and see the authors, title, year, and journal where a particular study was published.
I think that the argument against in-text references is that they are distracting from the narrative. I do think that references providing names and dates can be distracting, but I personally think that superscript numbers can do the trick without taking away from the story. Even so, I understand the point that the story needs to stand on its own even if the reader never checks references. Perhaps not providing in-text references would force me to be more selective about the references I choose and to build the story of a particular study more fully. And it might make the book feel more accessible to a reader not accustomed to this style.
I also admit that my resistance to writing without in-text references comes in part from my hesitancy to step outside my comfort zone. It could be that references are a sort of crutch to me, and that my writing would improve without them if I was willing to work on this.
Going through the books on my shelf right now (those that relate to parenting and science but are written for a lay audience), I see a few different ways of handling this question.
1. A “Notes” section – without in-text markers – followed by a bibliography with full citations. Examples of this format:
NurtureShock, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, is a really excellent book that makes science come alive within an easy narrative. I really admire this book, so I paid close attention to this format. There are no in-text references or footnotes. Important studies are described in detail, and sometimes the journal and year of publication are given within the text. A Notes section at the end of the book provides references backing assertions within the chapter. These are not marked within the chapter, but if you were reading along and wondering what evidence stood behind a particular statement, you might find a paragraph in the Notes describing and listing several studies by author and date. You could then proceed to the “Selected Sources and References” at the back of the book listing full citations by chapter. Finding the papers behind a given statement in the chapter thus requires a two-step process – checking first the notes and then the reference list. But the text of this book flows so easily that you want to keep reading, not check references. I think that’s a good thing.
The Panic Virus by Seth Mnookin, another book that I admire for its sound science and gripping narrative. The notes and bibliography of this book are nearly 100 pages long. Notes are not marked in the text but are listed by page number in the Notes section.
2. A “Notes” section – with superscript numbers as in-text markers – followed by a bibliography with full citations. Examples of this format:
Bottled Up by Suzanne Barston – Gosh, I’ve been meaning to write about this book, but I’m afraid I need to reread it first since now its been too long. Great book, though.
Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman – There’s more science in this book than meets the eye.
Your Baby’s Best Shot by Stacy Mintzer Herlihy and E. Allison Hagood
3. Just one reference list at the end of the book, with in-text markers for sources.
The Science of Parenting, by Margot Sunderland. I also paid close attention to this book since my book may be competing in a similar market, and there are things that I both like and dislike about this book. Sunderland doesn’t tell us much about the studies she cites but instead uses them to back narrative text providing advice to parents. In this case, I really appreciate the in-text citations, because sometimes I’ve tracked down her references and found that she’s stretched the interpretation of a study and made a few conceptual leaps to link it to her statement. I think this illustrates one danger of in-text citations. It gives the look of authority, but perhaps it also allows the author to take more liberties with her interpretation, because she doesn’t actually have to tell you much about the studies backing her statement. If you’re wondering, you can go look it up, but many readers won’t have the time or resources to do this.
The Fourth Trimester by Susan Brink: I just received a review copy of this book and haven’t yet read it. In-text citations are given as superscript numbers, and all references (including interviews and correspondence) are given in one “Notes” section.
4. No in-text citations and one reference list available. This style seems to be adopted mostly by experts in their fields, who likely feel comfortable giving advice without backing it with research. (This isn’t me!)
Child of Mine by Ellyn Satter – This is my favorite guide to feeding children, and it is evidence-based to boot. She also has many appendices on important topics (like “Nutritional Principles for Baby Formula” and “Children and Food Acceptance: The Research”), written in more technical language and really geared for the parent who wants to know more about the research behind her recommendations.
Brain Rules for Baby by John Medina – no printed references in the book, but a note on a single page at the back of the book refers the reader to a website that provides “extensive, notated references.”
Maybe you can help me figure out how to handle references. Can you check some of your favorite science books to see how they do it? What style do you prefer? Do you even check references when you’re reading a book like this?