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I am a historian and I have noticed over the last few years that my footnotes have become too long. It goes so far that for a recent article manuscript the word count of my footnotes is only slightly less than the word count of the main text. The main problem is that I have too many footnotes that are discursive instead of simply listing my sources. That, in turn, is due to two factors:

  1. I am afraid that when readers look up the source they might interpret it differently from me or disagree with my interpretation and thus I often explain my interpretation in the footnote. That also goes for cases where there might be another source that slightly contradicts the source I am quoting. I often end up discussing that second source in the footnote.

  2. I am afraid that someone might say that I am saying something similar to another scholar (even if it is a minor point) and so I often add extra footnotes that more or less simply say "X says something similar but my point is different in this or that way" or simply "also see" to make sure noone can say I don't acknowledge the work of others.

I always had a tendency to have longer/more footnotes than others, but I suffer from anxiety, in particular about the issues above and my academic work in general, and I feel like this has manifested itself in my longer/more numerous footnotes. A lot of them are simply there to reassure myself.

When I read the work of other scholars, I always admire how short/concise their footnotes are and I kind of hope that I can write like this at some point. But I am not quite sure how to get there. I am wondering whether anyone might have advice to offer on this?

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    Are the footnotes basically extended citations, explaining the work of others, or are they more expansions of your own ideas?
    – Buffy
    Feb 11 at 14:09
  • Gibbon's Decline and Fall would be much less enjoyable without its footnotery. Perhaps study and learn from his presentation techniques? Feb 11 at 19:53
  • Thanks for the comments. It can be both discussion of other literature and clarifications of the sources I use, often explaining the sources in detail, so that it is clear what my interpretation is and where it comes from. Often I also just feel I should describe every detail I can find in my sources so that noone can say I am leaving something out. Feb 12 at 9:05
  • An issue that also contributes to longer footnotes is that when I cite primary/secondary sources for a point I make, I try to include every work/source that makes this point, even though I think that is not really necessary and just citing one source should be enough. Feb 12 at 9:37
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    It seems like you know perfectly well what to do, it's just that you are uncomfortable with doing it because you are afraid that someone will then attack you for "leaving something out". Feb 12 at 19:35

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It seems to me that there are two different approaches to answering your question. The first is to focus on what the structure of a good footnote is, what information is suitable for conveying in a footnote versus the main text and what an appropriate length is for a footnote. Taking that approach, is, I think, unlikely to be useful to you. The fact that you can recognize well written, appropriate-length footnotes in the writing of other people suggests that the problem for you lies elsewhere. Hence the second approach to your problem ...

Your experience, in terms of your internal reaction to your own work, sounds very similar to the experience of people who more obviously have what is referred to in the psychology literature as "performance anxiety". Although performance anxiety is usually associated with such things as being on stage (hence the related term, "stage-fright"), its critical features have little to do with the specific situation. Rather, performance anxiety usually includes:

  1. Negative appraisal of one's own performance
  2. Anticipation that one's performance will result in negative appraisal from others
  3. Concern that the negative appraisal from others will, in some way, have very bad consequences.

Your description of the feelings and concerns that you have as you elaborate your footnotes in ever greater detail suggests that your are trying to forestall the possibility of points 2 and 3 above. My reason for introducing the term "performance anxiety" is partly because it helps to structure an answer to your question, but also because you might find it useful to look for literature on the subject using those words.

Now to a how you might approach the problem ...

It is generally very difficult to deal with anxiety in the absence of accurate information about the outcome of a behaviour. In your case, you might have tried to write shorter footnotes but found it almost impossible when your whole being screams out that this will only lead to disaster (e.g., other people being critical of you). My guess is that you have tried to do too much, too quickly.

With those preparatory thoughts, I suggest two things ...

  1. Find an editor you can trust, not only with your work but with your feelings and concerns about your work. By editor, I don't mean a professional editor; rather, I mean someone (perhaps a colleague or friend) whose judgement you trust and who (a) would be willing to work with you in overcoming the problem, and (b) can help you to tailor the footnotes in a way that fulfulls the requirements of the next ingredient in this two part list ...
  2. Together with your editor friend, take a graded approach to overcoming your problem.
  3. Begin by trying to trim down the length of the footnotes in something that you are not deeply invested in, either emotionally or intellectually; for example, look at where you have, in the past, written short footnotes (perhaps in class lecture notes) and see whether you can eliminate the footnotes entirely, or shorten them even more. You should be aiming for a length of footnote that leaves you with a slight tingle of apprehension about whether it's OK or not, but low enough apprehension that you can move ahead with your plan. After a while, I expect that you will not feel much apprehension about this at all.
  4. Having experimented with a few low-stakes situations over a period of a few weeks, you should feel able (again with your editor) to experiment with shortening the footnotes in some pieces of work that are more serious. Ideally, if step 3 went well, then the apprehension you feel at this step will be no greater than it was initially for the previously situation. Once again, your aim should be to produce work where you feel some slight discomfiture about the shortness of the footnotes, but certainly not any feelings of dread.

My guess would be that within a few iterations, you'll be feeling a lot less anxious, and your work will more closely approximate that of the people whose work you admire.

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