Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Writing with crutches

I just got out of my Government Department honors research seminar. Among the things we discussed today was the use of footnotes, and whether or not it’s ok to use them for text that must be included but would disrupt the flow of the narrative. One of the two professors said he feels that footnotes are only for citations and discussion of citations, and that to use them for narrative asides is a crutch and should only be done in an “emergency”. Such writing, he said, is a cop-out used when the author can’t find an easy way to massage the actual text.

Maybe he’s right, but what I’m left wondering is… so what? Why is using a crutch an inherently bad thing? I don’t know of anyone who has ever walked up to someone hobbling down the sidewalk on a broken knee or crushed ankle and said, “Hey! You! You can’t use that! That’s a crutch! No crutches allowed!”

Let’s say your writing ability is your leg, and your leg is broken. If the doctor tells you it’s going to take a month to heal, but your paper is due in two weeks, what is so bad about using a crutch?

Now I’m not saying I agree with the professor about footnotes. He’s a good professor who's a lot more knowledgabe than I and I'm enjoying his class, but this is hardly an issue on which academics are united, so I feel safe in siding with the professors who disagree with him on this onel ittle issue. But footnotes and professors beside the point. The real point is, even if he is right and I’m wrong… so what? Let's throw this obnoxious phrase under the bus once and for all!

As tired clich├ęs go, James Fallows has his boiling frogs, and I guess I have my crutches.

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