Wednesday, May 05, 2004

An Alternative to Footnotes I Haven't Seen

To footnote or not to footnote? That's a question commonly faced by non-fiction writers. There's a number of answers to this, all of which address the issue of how to deal with information that's of relevance but which clashes with the main flow of the text. I want to describe an approach I haven't seen before (which may or may not already exist), but first I'll recap the approaches I'm aware of.

I can think of five different approaches, most of which are variations of a few basic themes. If footnotes at the bottom of the page are not included, a reference may still be included in the text, but the note itself may be relegated to the end of the chapter or the end of the book. Alternatively, such notes are left out altogether, and yet another solution is for notes to be included at the end of the chapter/book but not being referenced in the main text. In this case, the text the note applies to is identified by a page number and sometimes a short quote to identify what the note applies to.

Now for the approach I haven't seen before. It follows the same line as the "no references in text, but the notes are included at the end of the book" approach. With that approach, the quote of text included with the note can help you to know what the note applies to, but it usually doesn't include enough information for you to appreciate the note in full, so you have to skip back to the relevant page then go back and read the note. The approach I'm suggesting ought to avoid the need for this skipping back and forth.

The idea is to make the notes section self-contained. The entry for each note would, as a lead in to that note, recap on all the relevant ideas from the book. This way we still avoid breaking the flow of the main text, but in addition we also avoid breaking the flow when reading a note. I'd also suggest this notes section be placed at the end of each chapter, so its there for you to read immediately after reading the chapter. Done this way, the notes section would have a narrative feel, like the author was recaping on what they'd been talking about in the main text and pointing out where what they said there needs qualification, references to further information, and so on.

So I guess the question is: is this approached used anywhere, or has it been tried but found lacking in some way, or is it still waiting to be tried out?

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