In the writing of my dissertation, I had a number of academic mentors read my work. Towards the end of my research, someone who I highly respect gave me this advice which came to mind again to me recently as I turn to new projects:
[the following is a paraphrase of what he told me]
“Nijay, when I read your work, I see that you often cite scholarship to support your ideas. In fact, you often cite dozens of scholars in support of the particular idea you are arguing for. While to others this might be sign of good research, to me it comes across as the opposite – it could appear as if you need to cite person after person in favor of a view because you can’t seem to defend it otherwise. Make sure your argument stands on its own and use secondary sources to strengthen and extend an already secure argument.”
Well, needless to say this is was a heavy blow to me at the time. At one point, this same mentor used the analogy that I was hiding behind my sledgehammer in my attempt to crack eggshells. Yikes! In the end, he was right. I can’t say I made all the right choices in the writing of my dissertation – it was an important learning exercise, and it bears those marks (but I still think it is useful!). I have vowed, though, to do better in my next few projects. But I would commend to you Sean McDonough’s new Christ as Creator (Oxford) which exemplifies this confident style of writing that stands strong on his own arguments and research and I appreciate his minimalistic attitude towards footnotes. Thus, I do endorse the “Less is more” perspective because it is true that you should be able to defend your argument with your own evidence.
A related issue is this: I often had so many notes and didn’t know what to do with them so I dumped them into the dissertation in the footnotes. Sometimes footnotes can offer this service: check out this other info. However, it takes discipline and wisdom to know what to leave in and what to leave out. In these days, we are getting a little out of control with books regularly going over 1000 pages (reference books, commentaries, monographs, etc..). Again, this can be useful, but for some it can be a signal of laziness or a desire to tell the reader everything you know (in my case, it was probably a sign of insecurity). So, again, I vow to improve by being more discriminating about what to leave in and what to exclude.
So – less is more? Sometimes.