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In his answer to Our note in footnote of a book, Malvolio writes:

I hate numbered foot-notes personally, they're very distracting

Which I agree with, but his recommendation, to use endnotes, I find much more more distracting: what havoc is played with ones grasp of the thread of a text when one fumbles in the back of the book for several seconds finding the note in order to see whether it is the one footnote in ten that is essential to the text.

What are good policies to make footnotes more manageable in text?

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+1 for "foot&note disease", like that :) –  Craig Sefton Apr 19 '11 at 8:32
    
ditto. +1 for the wordplay. :) –  Lauren Ipsum Apr 19 '11 at 12:08
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Meh, I love numbered foot-notes. It's a beautiful thing to get yourself lost in the parentheticals, especially in historical subjects. –  Uticensis Apr 19 '11 at 12:55
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I love footnotes too. Terry Pratchett w/o his footnotes? Unthinkable! ;-) –  Jürgen A. Erhard Apr 24 '11 at 11:48
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For the ultimate foortnote headache, try Jasper Fforde. –  Joubarc Sep 16 '11 at 6:45
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6 Answers

I say that you should follow the style your audience is used to. Technical writing? Academic writing? Footnote and endnote and sidenote away!

Novel? Don't even think about it. You want people to get lost in the linearity of the narrative.

If you want to add some background info that might be interesting to some readers but not to most, add an appendix. If it is in fact relevant to the tale, weave it in.

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The way you're avoiding notes depends on the type of writing you're doing. Most of the time it is painful and not worthwhile.

If you can explain facts in parenthesis, do so. If you can explain with some background information that will void the need for notes, do so. If you can integrate into the prose what needs to be said in the notes, you should.

As I said in the beginning, avoiding footnotes can be painful in many cases. For instance, if providing context for the incursions of the Europeans into the Middle East, you'd have to carve a place for an explanation of, say, the start of the Templars. It might not be plausible, in which case a footnote would be best.

EDIT: Painful to write, I mean. The cited example might be poor, but it was the first thing that popped into my mind.

There are cases where footnotes are best: when their information is not enough in context to write inline, but too compelling to omit. If the reader doesn't read the note, they miss out, but not so much that the meaning of the text is lost.

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Painful for whom? The writer or the reader? I certainly see that the footnote is easiest for the writer in your example, but wouldn't the discussion of the incursions be impoverished for a reader who had not made the excursion to the footnote about the Templars? It looks like a case where the writer really should make the text linear. –  Charles Stewart Apr 29 '11 at 14:08
    
Edited the post... thanks for the comment. –  iajrz Apr 29 '11 at 14:10
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Edward Tufte proposes a fascinating idea of sidenotes (link) which are literally over on the side of the page, next to the text they're related to, rather than at the bottom of the page.

If you have enough control over the layout of the page, sidenotes can be very pleasantly readable and minimally disruptive to one's train of thought.

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I'm familiar with these under the name marginal notes. It's a good point - the textual excursion is smaller with them - but they make for more complex page layout. –  Charles Stewart Apr 29 '11 at 14:10
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I don't mind footnotes if they are of the sort that are shown at the bottom of each page, so I only need to move my eyes down a bit to figure out what the footnote is trying to tell me.

As for endnotes, the ones that are only explained at the end of the chapter or, worse, at the end of the book -- I can't fathom who actually reads these because they are so much work for the reader. You'd have to be quite dedicated.

In any case, footnotes are at best a novelty and should be used with restraint. The reader should be (pleasantly) surprised every time they see one.

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For endnotes, I prefer the ones at the end of the book. It's much easier to flip back and forth between a page and the back of the book rather than one page and another that's in the middle of the book. –  waiwai933 Apr 26 '11 at 18:31
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Footnotes should* be used for things like side commentary. They can also be used for brief references, if you wish.

Endnotes should* be used when describing extended research material, an annotated bibliography/extended references and other longer notes that aren't considered brief side comments.

*I say "should", but it comes down to what you're comfortable with, what is least distracting to the reader, and (importantly) what you do consistently.

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I use foot-notes, if at all, for explanatory material that cannot be fit in-line, but that would help the reader with understanding what he is reading; end-notes are for citations -- the dead-tree equivalent of hyperlinks.

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Exactly this. I hate having to have a second bookmark in a book to flip back and forth constantly for explanatory material. Citations are rarely relevant to me as a reader as I'm going through the text, although they can be very useful later if I am using the text for reference or research. –  Lauren Ipsum Apr 19 '11 at 12:10
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