The damn footnotes
I know what I like, and don't like, in a footnote: an accurate and precise reference to what ever is being discussed (I mean not a reference to Smith (2008), when Smith (2008) is a book of 1000 pages -- but Smith (2008) 245-47); a certain modesty (not a vast multi-lingual bibliography of modern theoretical works, semi-relevant to the topic, designed only to display the learning of the author... you know 'the seminal work in Slovenian remains..'); and value-added wit (I like a footnote to reward those who bother to consult it with an extra bit of thought-provocation and humour).
But it is one thing knowing what one likes, quite another actually managing to do it oneself.
I have spent the last week or so trying to complete and check the footnotes from my book of the Sather lectures (on Roman Laughter), now long overdue. And a rather gloomy experience it has been.
For a start, I did try -- so far as I could -- to write the footnotes, as I was writing the first draft of the main text. That is drop-down sensible. In fact, there are a few occasion where I was obviously in such a rush in writing at round one, that I decided just to crack the main text down and leave the notes till later. There was just a blank at the bottom of the page. The process of trying to reconstruct what I thought I was going to put in the notes is vastly time-consuming, and sometimes defeating. Earlier this week I was reduced to going up to a colleague in the library and saying, "Who do you think I was actually referring to when I wrote this??" (luckily he knew).
But even where I have drafted the notes already, it becomes all too obvious in retrospect that it is hard to keep to the same standard (between the anal and the cavalier). In fact I looked with horror at what would have been the first footnote in the book. I kick off with an anecdote about Dio Cassius in the Colosseum, trying to stifle his giggles at the "antics" of the emperor Commodus in 192 CE/AD. What was the first note in my draft? A long and learned disquisition on the exact name of Dio Cassius. Was it relevant? No, it wasn't. Blue pencil ....
The other issue, as I said, is accuracy. I have a rule of thumb in published work: that roughly 30-50% of footnotes are not right in some way. Either the reference in question does not really prove what is claimed, or it is simply wrong (in the sense of being mis-copied or a typo or whatever). "Let she who is without sin....." you might say. So I have been enlisting the (paid) support of a junior member of the family to check each and every one of the damn things.
And time-consuming it is too... about a chapter a week, if there are no more serious errors than usual. Imagine our distress (that is putting it mildly) when earlier in the week we found we had lost the single corrected hard copy of Chapters One and Two .... Not a good moment for Beard, who truly lost her rag.
The good news was that the pages were actually all safe as houses on one of the tables in the Faculty Library. Phew, but a nasty, nasty moment for Beard and son.