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Friday, October 29, 2010

How to Eliminate Footnote Glut (and Reader Vertigo) in Legal Writing

Joan Magat (Duke) has published Bottomheavy:  Legal Footnotes, 60 J. Legal Edu. 65 (2010). Here is part of the Introduction:

This article reviews, as many others have, why and to what extent we footnote in legal academic writing. Unlike most others, it suggests amelioration—that footnotes should follow a rational rule around which the following objectives should orbit: First, satisfy the reader’s most basic need in letting her eye drop below the line in the first place—attribution. Elucidation is the other important reason. Yet if the text above the line doesn’t satisfy that latter need at the outset, then it ought to. It might just be that we should not expect journal articles, like dissertations, to display every dimension of the writer’s research, knowledge, and cogitation. It might just be that we should be reading these articles chiefly for what they have to say. Which comes around to the most important reason for a rule of reason: to make the articles themselves readable.

Here is the Conclusion:

Footnote glut can be alleviated by giving the reader less and trusting the author more. The author implicitly stands behind her cited authority, anyway, just as she stands explicitly behind her argument. Student editors provide authors the service of checking the author’s cites for accuracy and appropriateness, but it is the author, not the editor, who is ultimately responsible for both, just as the author is responsible for winnowing all sources consulted to citing the best source. The editor can help by urging less, not more. The reader more interested in substance than in sources will be grateful. The only losers will be those who relish a romp through discursive notes tickling both intellect and wit. But who’s to say the witty, intellectually curious author must exercise such gifts only below the line? Any writer with rapier wit should be wielding it in the text. It’s the absence of wit that, among other bad habits, has stultified law-review prose style ...

At bottom, the message to law-review editors and authors alike is this: Above the line, loosen up; below the line, lighten up. Relieve reader vertigo.

The article has 174 footnotes and a seven-page list of sources.

http://taxprof.typepad.com/taxprof_blog/2010/10/eliminate-footnote-.html

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Comments

I would go with this statement in the ninth page of the article - "Many who defend probative footnotes that run to bibliographic bulk appreciate footnotes as finding sources."

Foot note references often lead to treasures as great as the original article.

Posted by: Scott | Oct 29, 2010 1:35:03 PM

Student editors provide authors the service of checking the author’s cites for accuracy and appropriateness, but it is the author, not the editor, who is ultimately responsible for both, just as the author is responsible for winnowing all sources consulted to citing the best sourcgreat lens will credit this and save...

Posted by: scoremore | Oct 30, 2010 3:57:10 AM

Reference lists get just as bad. A two page article in a med journal may end up having three or four pages of references. It's like "Where's Waldo" for docs.

Posted by: Diggs | Oct 31, 2010 10:04:32 AM

I used to joke when i was in law school that you were not a true academic until you managed to write something that had one line of text and the rest of the page was footnotes.

And of course if you manged to have one line of text and TWO pages following of footnotes, then you got automatic tenure.

Posted by: Aaron Worthing | Oct 31, 2010 11:54:47 AM