Since I lead a very exciting life, foot/endnotes are something I think about fairly frequently: How many? How long? How detailed? Foot or end? To excerpt or merely to cite? And so on. In an attempt to clarify my thinking, I have sketched a few thoughts, rants, and peeves.
Footnotes for Blogging
For blog posts like I do here at JI, I tend to use many footnotes and make them pretty long. My thinking is that?
(1) There are no space constraints—the page just keeps scrolling down, so I can put as much info as I think useful (or fun or interesting or whatever: it?s just blogging). However, just because the page keeps going doesn?t mean the readers do, and
(2) More-than-just-citation footnotes can make the main post more concise and transparent and thus more likely to be read and appreciated. As a reader, I prefer highly-structured writing, with main points, sub-points, evidences, digressions, etc, clearly labeled for easy navigation; I assume some of my readers have similar preferences. So, dear reader, it?s all about you, except when it?s about me, and then
(3) Footnotes are a lazy-writing short-cut. If I make the main post too long, (even more) people won?t read it, but clear, concise writing takes time and energy, which I don?t want to spend too much of on blogging. So? when I can?t find the nerve to kill my darlings I just throw them in the basement.
(4) Long footnotes can improve searchability. In blogging, I frequently give excerpts in footnotes rather than just citations. When people put phrases from those documents into a search-engine, I want them to land on my post. My ego is kept alive by the mouse clicks of dozens of internet readers and those readers are rewarded by not having to rediscover or re-transcribe what I?ve already typed up. It?s a win-win. I also imagine that a non-trivial percentage of the people who read the sort of posts I write are trawling for sources. I want it to be easy for them.
(5) Didactic, conversational, and pedantic footnotes fit my personality. For me, a big part of the process of writing is getting myself out of the way of the topic. Footnotes can provide another, less-formal valence for author/reader interaction. (Be advised that if you sit next to me in meatspace during a presentation you might get an earful of ?footnotes.?)
Footnotes for Formal Academic Writing
In formal scholarly writing most of the above don?t hold, and, in my experience as a reader, voluminous footnotes often (but not always) indicate a lack of analysis or crafting. Unless it says ?Annotated Bibliography? in the title, please don?t give me an annotated bibliography.
Make citations as short as possible, but no shorter. I think one of the main purposes of the footnote is defeated if the reference is too vague. Sometimes the reference is to whole sections of a source and sometimes it is to a specific line: you should tell me which. In general, I want directions all the way to the sections/lines/images you reference.
- If it?s in a box with folders, tell me which folder and which page(s) in that folder.
- If it?s a microfilmed source, tell me which roll in the set and where on that particular roll.
- If it?s a newspaper, give me page and column numbers, and if the print is small, tell me where in the column.
I burn a bunch of my archive time trying to find information for which I supposedly have a citation. You were already there and it would have taken you only a few seconds longer and maybe a few more pages in the published text to include detailed citations; what would have been your seconds turned into my minutes and hours of clock-time, eye-strain, and emotional energy on archive trips when all of those are expensive.
So, dear readers, let?s have some rants and peeves and counter-rants and counter-peeves on footnotes. Thoughts are also welcome.