My love affair with the footnote

If you’ve been reading Scientist Sees Squirrel for a while, or if you’ve read The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, you’ll have noticed my tendency to footnote. Footnotes drive some folks up the wall; others love them. You can tell that I’m in the latter camp – but why?

I guess there are two ways to answer that question: historically and functionally.

Historically: I’ve always loved weird digressions and unexpected connections – things that might not quite be germane to the main point, but are interesting or surprising or funny. If you’re of a vintage similar to mine, you might remember James Burke’s documentary series for the BBC, Connections, which made the apparent digressions the whole point in tracing the history of science. Not that Connections had footnotes, exactly – I’m not sure what a TV footnote looks like – but it had plenty of going where you didn’t quite think you were going. More recently, Steven Johnson’s How We Got To Now revels in the same kind of nonlinearity. And for more strictly comic purposes, if you’ve read the novels of Terry Pratchett, you’ve seen footnotes used by a master. I love Terry Pratchett’s footnotes.*

Functionally: as I use them, footnotes represent a solution to a conflict between two of a writer’s most important goals. As a writer, I want my work to be engaging; and I also want my writing to be clear and easy to read. A digression, an aside, an unexpected connection, or a witticism can be a powerful tool for engaging a reader – but risks complicating that reader’s job by interrupting an otherwise simple, linear flow of information. A compromise: provide the digression, but signal clearly that it’s optional and not part of the main argument. Footnotes do this well.** If you’re one of those readers who hates footnotes, you can easily ignore them without fear of losing the main message. If you’re a reader like me who loves them, they’re there for you – and you get clear signposting of where the digressions lie, and how to return from them to the central argument.***

When I wrote The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, my first draft was absolutely festooned with footnotes. Even I knew it was too much, so I cut about half of them out. During the review process, the editorial team pressured me to cut out about half of what remained (footnotes do complicate printing, it’s true). I was bowed, but not broken. The second edition, published last spring, has some substantial additions and improvements; it also has more footnotes. Depending what side of the fence you’re on, you’re welcome; or, I’m sorry.

 © Stephen Heard  February 8, 2023

 Image: one of my favourite footnotes, from The Scientist’s Guide to Writing (2nd ed, © Princeton University Press). If you are now picturing Agatha Christie (or Alan Greenspan) naked, I apologize. Or, I would, if I was actually sorry.

*^If you haven’t read Pratchett: it’s time to fix that. What most people are talking about, when they bring up Pratchett, is his Discworld fantasy series. I recommend starting here, or here, or here. His collaboration with Neil Gaiman, Good Omens, is also brilliant.

**^For more academic footnotes, there’s a similar conflict between providing detailed information that only a few readers will really want, while making the text simple and readable for the majority of readers. My forthcoming book on teaching and mentoring writing will use footnotes for this purpose. Well, unless somebody stops me, some of them will probably be amusing too.

***^Although at risk of losing other opportunities. If you read The Scientist’s Guide to Writing but skip the footnotes, you risk going through life not knowing who won the only Grammy ever awarded in the “Best Disco Song” category – among other things. And who would want to go through life that way?


10 thoughts on “My love affair with the footnote

  1. jeffollerton

    Agreed, I love a good footnote! Don’t like endnotes though, all that flipping back and forth is a pain. And Connections was amazing! It’s one of the tv programmes that I credit with turning me into a scientist.


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Happy to discover a “Connections” connection! I’m with you on endnotes, although I fear the next book will be forced into them because the notes will be long (lots of additional literature review, etc.) which will probably make them too awkward for page bottoms. If only physical books could have hyperlinks…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Gael

    I love how you do footnotes on your blog. I like the option of reading the posts in more than one way (and I change how I read them, depending on how busy I am and how much mental energy I have on the day I read the post).

    And, honestly, if you included the footnoted info in the text every time, I would likely not be reading the blog anymore. I love the info that’s in the footnotes, and enjoy reading the footnotes. but I can’t abide a long blog post or big blocks of text. And I know I’m not alone in that.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hal Caswell

    Agreed! I love and frequently use footnotes. I think I got the habit by reading lots of Popper (one of my favorite writers); he uses them masterfully. That useage was taken to the limit by his student Imre Lakatos, who wrote “Proofs and Refutations”, a serious philosophical book on mathematical proof. The text was in the form of a dialogue between imaginary students and their teacher in an imaginary classroom. The footnotes filled in the actual history of which mathematicians had made those arguments at what time in history. More footnotes than text.

    One thing that isn’t always mentioned is that footnotes are the early version of hypertext links. There are about 10 of those in this post, including the often-seen here, here, and here. Those are just indications that the reader can find out more by following this trail, which is just what footnotes do.

    Plus, you can make them humorous. And indeed, Terry Pratchett is a master.


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks, Hal! And yes, you’re completely right about the relationship between footnotes and hyperlinks. In fact, the footnotes in my blog posts ARE hyperlinks – I think it was Manu Saunders who showed me the HTML code to make them work that way on a web page. In my earliest posts they didn’t work that way, but it wa annoying for a reader to have to scroll down and then back up.

      (For anyone interested: the footnote is preceded by “*^“, the footnote itself is a link that looks like “*“, and the paragraph in which the footnote originates is preceded by “” – with the numbers changing for each footnote, of course.)


  4. Ben Salisbury

    You sound like a footnote fanatic, but do your footnotes have footnotes? I’m picturing fractal footnotes all the way down. Maybe a bit of recursion even!

    While I enjoy footnotes (definitely more than endnotes (I’m with the other poster on that point)), I’ve always been fond of parentheticals (the literal kind, rather than the merely linguistic ones) due to not having to fuss with work processor technology (I’m a bit lazy that way).


  5. laanisto

    This Connections seems like a very interesting show. Btw, there is a Norwegian writer Dag Solstad, who wrote an entire novel as footnotes. The English version is titled: “Armand V. Footnotes from an unexcavated novel”. It was not so bad, though, also nothing special in my mind…


  6. Pavel Dodonov

    I love your footnotes! Especially because they add a good dose of humor to the writing.
    And probably mostly inspired by you I often use footnotes on my own blog, mostly to say something funny (or that I think is funny). Once I added a footnote to a footnote to make it funnier. 🙂



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