Monday, 24 January 2011

A Note about Footnotes

I know this seems completely off-topic and unnecessary, but one of the advantages of having a blog is to be able to make your complaints available for a wider audience. However, I believe that this will not be so useless as it seems and I would use it as an advice when writing documents, specially reports and thesis. It's simple: do not overuse footnotes!

Footnotes are devices that should be used with care, which in many books (some very famous) and articles they are not. I don't mind when the author use the footnotes to place the references, for instance. In fact, in some journals this is part of the articles standard format. I do prefer when the references are at the end of the paper, but that is just a biased opinion and there is not much difference. The biggest and most annoying misuse of footnotes is to add "extra information". I have an opinion about that. If you have any relevant information, just put it on the main text. If it's not relevant, almost all the time it's better to just keep it out of the document. There are very rare occasions where a footnote is okay, but they are really rare.

When should you consider the information worth of a footnote? Well, you must use your own common sense, but there are some tips to see if you are not abusing them. For instance, if every page of your thesis has a footnote, you actually have more than one thesis. Also, if your footnotes are longer than two lines, maybe the information should be written with slightly larger characters in the main text. Believe me, I have seen books where the main page had just a few lines of text and the whole rest of it was filled with footnotes!

Another thing, there is nothing more distracting for the reader than a long sequence of footnotes that keep interrupting the flow of the text all the time. It's absolutely disrupting and I gave up reading some books because the footnotes made it look like a jigsaw puzzle. And to give just one example of a brilliant person who abused too much of footnotes, think about the Landau & Lifshitz books (it's a famous series of physics books for those who are not physicists). Beyond all the other issues that make those books difficult to follow, on top of that the footnotes keep interrupting the reading over and over again. And Landau is surely in the pantheon of physics gods.

When I wrote my Ph.D. thesis, I used just one footnote. I kept it because, in fact, I wanted to look smart about a topic, but I regret it. The rest of the 150 pages has no footnotes, except for the references but they were at the end of the document, not of the pages. At the end, I received many compliments for the clarity of the text.

So, my advice is: include every relevant piece of information in the main text. Use parenthesis, comas or whatever other trick you may need, but don't force the reader to make a detour to the end of the page unless you really, really, really think there is no other way. Your readers (maybe me one day) will thank you. (Of course, that's only MY taste...)

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