Rose debug info

Footnotes make blogs hard to read

Some authors use footnotes too much. This usually takes the following form:

An exciting story on a subject 1, blah-blah.

  1. Another exciting story on the same subject. Or the boring details on the subject. Or an explanation on why some of the details are not actually true and how it does not matter.

How am I supposed to read this? Does the author want me to scroll down every time I see a superscripted number to read the footnote? Or should I ignore it?

When I follow a footnote, I lose track of the main narrative. This is no surprise, for if the footnote’s content fitted the main line, it would not have ended up in a footnote, and I would not have to scroll back and forth. So when I return from the footnote, I back up a bit to get back on track. When I encounter the same footnote again, I can finally connect the dots. Not exactly a smooth reading experience.

When I ignore a footnote, I feel I am missing something. And many writers prove me right: when I finish reading and glance over the footnotes, I often find them worth reading. This makes me re-read the parts of the main text to figure out how the footnote is related to it. Then I can finally connect the dots. Not a smooth reading experience either.

Galileo Galilei’s book, a scan from the Edward Tufte forums.

In a book, where no scrolling is involved, footnotes are not as irritating as on the web. But a good designer will still avoid them, prefering sidenotes, as on the spread above. They require no meaningless numbers, you just place them beside the relevant text. This design helps a reader quickly check out whether a note is worth his attention and continue reading practically uninterrupted.

If you use the parallel narrative often, this is what you should look into. However, most of the time footnotes on the web are a sign of inconsistent writing.

Subscribe to this blog
 84   2014   design   writing