Footnotes and asides are a warning
Keep the focus on your main points and avoid distractions like footnotes. A few tips to refocus your writing.
I told a friend that when editing an article, footnotes are a red flag and he shouldn’t have any. That’s excessive, but I do believe that they can be a sign that your writing isn’t as clear as it could be. The same goes for excessive use of commas, em dashes, and parentheses to set aside nonessential clauses or interject some additional meaning. None of these are bad on their own; they can add some color and personality to your writing. But if you find yourself using them frequently, you should stop and reconsider your phrasing.
Footnotes can be quite useful. When used in print or plain-text formats, they’re a good way to include links. In any form, they can provide additional context and reference that the reader might not care about. They have the option to go look if they choose, but it doesn’t interrupt the flow of the text.
But I often see footnotes used to present irrelevant information or to make a joke. Consider if it’s appropriate to the context and the audience. When writing for an open source community, you should reasonably expect the audience to include a mix of cultures and languages. Will your reference make sense? If you have to go to great lengths to explain it, it’s probably not worth including.
Also ask if the footnote is better as an inline link. In a digital-first platform like a website or forum discussion, you can use a key phrase as a link to an explanation. This is great for the first use of jargon terms or when referring to previous work. Similarly, if you find yourself including a lot of footnotes, maybe write an explanation item first that you can link back to from your main point.
When I talk about “asides” here, I mean phrases—like this one—in a sentence but set apart with some kind of punctuation. These sorts of asides are often non-essential. In other words, your reader doesn’t lose the meaning if you omit the phrase.
These sorts of inline asides are bad for documentation where you’re trying to convey a set of steps. For other writing, they help keep the sentences from growing too monotonous. But overuse makes the train of thought hard to follow. Sometimes the answer is to drop the aside. Other times, you should break up the sentence. Try both options and see how they flow.
This article is adapted from Footnotes and asides are a warning and is republished with permission from Ben Cotton.