Footnotes

Stephen Hackett recently linked to the footnote JavaScript library Bigfoot.js:

“It works great on devices of all sizes and makes reading a long article much easier, as you don’t get bumped to the bottom of the article and back up to the top just to read a witty comment.”

You know what else makes a long article easier to read? Fewer footnotes.

This trend of footnotes in blog posts is out of control. Maybe a couple footnotes work well in a very long Daring Fireball essay, but in recent years bloggers are using footnotes everywhere in places where they’re just not necessary. They’re distracting and take you out of the story.

(Also remember, no amount of JavaScript footnote wizardly will help when I read your article in most web-based RSS readers. If I want to read the footnote right away, I’ll have to scroll down and then scroll back.)

I avoid footnotes in my writing. Often the same effect can be achieved with simple parenthesis. If parenthesis don’t fit well, entire extra paragraphs are also much more readable. And if it can’t be conveyed without footnotes, maybe the text should be cut out completely, if it is of so little importance to be relegated to the bottom of the article.

Footnotes are appropriate in two cases: either as true side notes, with facts or sources that can be looked at later, independently of the main writing; or for a particular style of writing, such as Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball, which often goes off on long tangents and has footnotes on every page. (No small feat because the book is over 700 pages.)

In this rant I’m not trying to criticize anyone in particular. I read several authors who use footnotes frequently and I love their writing. But that doesn’t mean everyone should adopt that style without making sure it actually fits the context. Consider whether footnotes in blogs might be a fad, and if so, that it’s a writing challenge to find another way.