Greg Dennis: Taking the footnote challenge

A friend who works in academia told me that, having gained the job security of tenure, they have decided to write less about stuffy intellectual topics and more about low-brow subjects. (1) An added advantage to my friend’s new writing approach: They don’t have to cite their sources. (2)

Which got me to thinking about — and being grateful for — the fact that columns don’t require footnotes. (3)

Either you trust a columnist enough that they don’t have to list their sources, or you’ve decided they’re an idiot and you don’t care.

But what would it be like, I wondered, if a column had not just footnotes, but almost as many footnotes as text?

Would that even be possible? We’re about to find out. (4)

Writing a column — or most anything except texts and email, for that matter — pits the writer against the great white whale (5) that is the empty gray computer screen. (6)

When you’re writing a column, some days the words just flow like maple syrup in March. (7) Other days, by comparison, the words have gone south like a retired dairy farmer, seemingly to return only for the occasional family reunion in August. (8)

Today we find ourselves at the latter juncture. The words — but not the footnotes — have gone south.

I’ve got a half-dozen ideas for the subject of today’s column. And I don’t feel like writing about a single one of them.

Among the rejected topics:

-The joys of retirement. (9)

-Are bears really as smart as chimpanzees? (10)

-Should Vermont at least have a limited hunting season on coyotes instead of allowing them to be indiscriminately killed 365 days a year? (11)

-The lifelong damage that playing football does to many boys and young men. (12)

-Emerging new doubts about the climate impacts of burning wood. (13)

-The harmful climate impacts of dairy products. (14)

-President Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds after they helped the U.S. defeat ISIS. (15)

But instead of any of those topics, we have here a short disquisition on footnotes.

Or maybe I don’t mean “disquisition.” Maybe it’s more like an exercise in filling space until I hit 900 words (16), look for a catchy ending (17), and depart the premises for another two weeks until the great bull of Pamplona that is deadline dread again comes charging down the street after me. (18)

One way to deal with these challenges is to write really short paragraphs.

Like this one.

Done right, this approach helps a particular statement stand out.

It makes your words seem a little more important.

Sometimes it even provides a certain urgency to the column.

Or not. (19)

Rather than having to deal with footnotes — as I was saying before we went off on that short-paragraph tangent — columnists pretty much get to wing it. It is, however, considered wise for us to add the occasional “according to” as a way to reassure the reader that we’re not completely making it all up. (20)

The writer David Foster Wallace was a notable exception to the no-footnotes rule in journalism. (21)

Wallace was at his best as a journalist, where he excelled at footnotes and article titles. “The String Theory,” a famous essay on professional tennis that he wrote for “Esquire,” had 46 footnotes, some of them paragraphs long. It was in part subtitled “A somewhat obsessive inquiry (with footnotes).”

Among the article titles for which Wallace was known: “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”

Which is probably a good description of this week’s column.


1.      I’m being gender-neutral and grammatically incorrect here to obscure the professor’s identity.

2.      Academics routinely use footnotes at the bottom of the page or endnotes at the conclusion.

3.      Footnotes in books are sometimes dismissively called “back matter.” As for newspaper columns, Wikipedia lists 14 different kinds including sports columns and tensei jingo. The latter translates as “the voice of heaven” and appears on the front page of a Japanese newspaper. Every columnist I know would love to have his work perceived as the voice of heaven.

4.     The risk being that the text becomes simply irrelevant and annoying. Writing in “The New Yorker,” Nathan Heller once observed: “Many readers, and perhaps some publishers, seem to view endnotes, indexes, and the like as gratuitous dressing—the literary equivalent of purple kale leaves at the edges of the crudités platter.” Obviously these folks do not wear T-shirts that say “Eat More Kale.”

5.      Herman Melville reference.

6.      Maybe the problem is the computer screen itself. In an online poll, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists decided that the two best-ever columns were written well before the invention of the computer. They chose World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle’s “The Death of Captain Waskow ” as the best column ever published in an American newspaper. That 1944 story edged out Francis Pharcellus Church’s editorial from 1897 titled, “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus.”

7.      Metaphor used to establish the writer’s rural bona fides.

8.      After the worst of the black flies and deer flies.

9.      Grandkids!

10.  A recent “Sierra” magazine, based on a New Hampshire researcher’s findings, says bears’ intelligence rivals that of the great apes.

11.  See

12.  Concussions are the most obvious problem but are just the beginning, as many former football players will attest.

13.  Burning wood could be just as bad as burning coal, according to recent studies. As UVM researcher Bill Keeton has documented, trees sequester increasingly more carbon if they are allowed to age rather than being cut for timber and firewood.

14.  Cows burp out an enormous mount of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

15.  The ignominious American retreat and abandonment of the Kurds — leaving part of Syria to the Turks and Russians — have angered many current and retired military personnel, and seem certain to alienate some of Trump’s base, making him more vulnerable to impeachment).

16.  900 words is about the limit of most readers’ attention span these days.

17.  A catchy ending seems unlikely in this context, so don’t say you weren’t warned.

18.  Cheesy Ernest Hemingway reference.

19.  Probably not.

20.  But sometimes we are in fact completely making it all up.

21.  Wallace was an often brilliant writer who struggled with booze, drugs and depression. He hanged himself at age 46, in 2008. Largely known as a novelist, he wrote the door-stopper “Infinite Jest.” So well known is he for a quirk of his writing technique, in fact, that a recent academic conference on his work was titled “Footnotes.”

Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at Email: Twitter: @greengregdennis.

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