On Footnotes

Suddenly there are footnotes everywhere. More precisely, there are now extremely visible footnotes everywhere: a flat landscape peppered with regular foot-turds dropped by some skittish monster of digression as it fled the scene.

Mea culpa, I played my part. My recent post, Add Bigfoot to Squarespace Sites, has titillated hundreds of seekers of knowledge. I have supped at the table of Footnote, and handed out extra helpings to as many people as I could reach. I scratched an item from my bucket list when a certain Dr. Drang name-checked me in his own post about footnotes.

I fell with reckless abandon (there are two kinds of abandon that I know of: wild, and reckless) into a blind congress with the technology that produces these little popup asides. With mild shame, now, I pause to consider my lack of forethought.

It’s often been my practice in life — don’t pretend it isn’t yours — to retcon my decisions. So, for example, when I bring home a liter of cottage cheese instead of sour cream, I’m more than capable of conjuring up some recent historical precedent and almost passing it off as done on purpose (rather than as the awful, disgusting mistake it truly was). Give me a couple of disparate positions and I can fill the metaphysical space between them with as many Archduke Franz Ferdinands as is necessary.

This tempting talent in mind, it galls me to admit that I am not entirely certain that the sudden profligate abundance of footnotes is a Good Thing. I considered the how: I did not take time to consider the why.

I was jerked from my placid self-satisfaction by a man who really, truly hates footnotes: my friend Jason. Jason is a professional editor (if you’re interested in having someone help you write more better check his site out) so he’s entitled to a fastidious distaste for random types of punctuation and so on. Until you get into the world of serious editing you have no idea the passionate debates that surround things you never even knew existed. Things like gerunds, for example. Don’t even go there.

Jason despises the footnote.

I disagree with him — I don’t think that footnotes are the cancer that is killing writing. But I do think they can become one of those easy pitfalls that line the road to great writing.

First, let’s put aside the red herring that footnotes are oh-so-important to people writing technical documents and the like. They very well may be. That is not part of our discussion here. I am interested in the use of footnotes on sites like this one.

The misuse of footnotes

Language is a funny old thing, especially the English language. If you ever think you are on solid ground with “this is the right way to do it”, wait a moment, someone will be along to prove you wrong. Language is such a fluid tool because its base purpose is the promotion of understanding between two people. As such it is subjective as hell and in constant flux.

Of course, this truism is a very comfortable little nest for the lazy writer to squat in.

I see footnotes being abused as a crux for the lazy. The footnote is generally intended for ancillary information: and if you’re writing a 800 word blog post, perhaps you should be cutting out the bits that don’t really need to be there.

It’s easy enough to flip fragments from side to side into footnotes as you barrel through your post. It’s harder and less interesting to redraft, making the hard decision about each of these tidbits. I think (and this was Jason’s main point) that an overabundance of footnotes shows that you’ve lost control of your manuscript. Either cut them out completely, or work them into the flow of the work. If you can’t work them in, maybe they don’t belong, and you should cut them out completely. Kill your darlings.

What happens when a reader hits a footnote — especially one of these new-fangled popup ones — is some level of distraction from the general train of thought you’ve been leading them down.

The proper use of footnotes

I’ve become convinced that I need to pull the lead out and pick up my footnotes. I’d been using them sometimes just because, which is an awful reason to do almost anything. I think this is part of a larger lesson I’ve been learning for a number of years about the way a writer should function. In short, I want to have a good reason for every word that makes it to my final draft. No doubt I’ll fail, but it’s the trying that’s important.

That said, I’ll still be using the occasional footnote.

Comedic gasp from off-stage.

That’s right. I think there are some occasional reasons to use footnotes.

The first reason is fairly simple, and you can see an example of it in this post. Sometimes you really want to include some information in a post, but working it into the flow would be too much of a stretch. In this case I wanted to link to something that was relevant (self-promotionally, at any rate) to that particular paragraph, but wouldn’t fit in nicely. This is the kind of footnote that I’m trying extremely hard to not use.

After all, visiting a website is not quite the same as reading a book, or a poem. There is an extra dimension (external links, multimedia, etc) immediately available, and sometimes it’s nice to use the full variety of tools at one’s disposal. I think there are some cases where it’s worth disrupting the reader’s rapt attention to give them other avenues to explore.

A mistake that’s often made by novice website creators is thinking that the ultimate goal is to keep the reader engaged only with your content. Sometimes helping them find other interesting things on the web is alright too.

The second reason to use footnotes is in the service of humor. A theatrical aside which makes the reader chortle can be the best thing in the world for a dry topic. For a perfect example of humorous footnoting I must recommend the d’Antin Manuscript, the finest use I’ve ever seen.

Put it this way: just because it only takes a couple of minutes to publish your writing for the entire world to see doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take your time over it. Quite the opposite, in fact. Ponder each footnote carefully.