Down with footnotes!

Footnotes are one of the staples of academic writing, right? There is no academic book or article that doesn’t feature a solid apparatus, to the point that you end up feeling as if you were reading not one book, not one article, but two.

I remember when I started using Microsoft Word—I couldn’t wait to add my first footnote to a paper I was writing. It made me feel as if I had finally moved past high school, and into a world where my writing needed to be explained, its layers unfolded. (Yes, I got my first computer in 1996, after my first semester in college. I have since made up for my previous lack of digital devices.)

Then I discovered (or realized the existence of) the first sign of evil: endnotes. Nasty things that force me to keep two bookmarks in the same book, or—if I’m feeling particularly lazy, which isn’t a rare occurrence—to just resign myself never to know what the note contains. Let’s face it: abandoning a page to move all the way across a book, or, even worse, across a chapter (worse because you don’t know where the chapter ends, and if you’re in the middle of an interesting read it’s unlikely that you’ll plan the move to a new chapter by placing a bookmark where its endnotes start) means interrupting the flow. And that note could contain anything, a simple reference, a quote, or half a page of detailed explanations of the stuff you were reading. By deciding to accept and explore an endnote, you’re gambling your time and attention with very uncertain results.

(And, while I’m at it, I’ll also mention those pesky ibid.’s and op. cit.’s, which assume not only that people are always reading a book cover to cover, but also that they have a superhuman ability to remember every single word and every single reference, as well as the page they were on. They’re the difference between smart and condescending.)

At least with a footnote you have the ability to throw the page footer a quick glance, and you’ll know if the gamble is worth it. Still, even a footnote involves a break in the flow. When I was editing my doctoral dissertation for publication, I decided to keep the footnotes to a minimum, by limiting their content to simple bibliographic references, and reworking anything else into the text. My idea was that if it was something worth mentioning, I must find a way to mention it without requiring extra effort on the reader’s part. If I had to go out of my way to make it flow, maybe it just wasn’t meant to be printed.

I used the same criterion when I was translating the book into English, and I think I did a pretty good job, especially considering that McFarland’s house style pushes all the notes to the end of the book. But although it takes just a few glances to realize that all my notes are just references, the eye is still bound to be a little distracted by those tiny numbers.

The web and digital books, even when notes are well implemented (still very rare in e-books), don’t make it any easier. Even if a machine is doing all the work of following the structure of the hypertext, having to jump around is still a gamble of time and attention. I know, the web is made of hypertexts, and it may sound a bit anachronistic to eschew such a fundamental functionality as linking to a footnote, especially in a medium that makes it so easy to get it right (particularly when Markdown is involved). But by saying that footnotes are evil I’m not denying the importance of the hypertextual mechanism: the hypertext is still there, governing the way a website and the whole web work—I just don’t think it’s fair to readers (and to myself as a writer) to break the flow by giving the mind reasons to abandon the piece to go read something else. Of course I don’t think all texts are equal, and I can still find the usefulness of hyperlinks and even footnotes in shorter blog posts, and also John Gruber–style link posts.1

Since my career doesn’t depend on someone judging the style I use in references or how I handle my endnotes, I’d much rather break academic customs than my readers’ attention. If I’m quoting someone, I’ll find a way to give proper attribution without forcing my readers to go look for it when they least need to. My goal is to make my next book completely note-free.

  1. See what I did there? And here? ↩︎