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What Is Signposting In Essays

There are all sorts of writing guidelines that go into creating the academic writing style. Every field has rules about issues like tense, citation format, and paper structure, and learning those rules is part of the academic process. But there are also conventions that, while not as strict as those just listed, play just as important a role in academic writing as footnotes and methodology sections. One of these conventions is signposting-a writing technique that lets readers know what to expect from your work.

What is Signposting?

Signposting, like the name suggests, is the process of posting sign throughout your paper in order to help the reader make sense of your work. Like the symbols on a map or a freeway exit sign, the signposts in your writing will tell the reader where they are and where they're headed.

Think of your writing as being like a road. As they go from word to word and paragraph to paragraph, readers are travelling down that road, and, just like out in the real world, readers are going to have an easier time navigating if you give them some signs along the way. Of course, it's possible for readers to make their way through your paper without any signposting. But, just like it would be annoying to try to find your way to a friend's house by simply driving in circles, your readers don't want to have to work hard to figure out what's going on.

In academic writing, signposting is the process of putting in words and phrases that act like road signs for the reader. These words tell the reader what to expect from the paper, i.e., they tell readers where they're going and what they'll see when they get there. Signposts are important because they make papers easier to read and understand. Instead of readers having to go back and reread sections of your paper, you'll be highlighting and repeating the important ideas for them.

Why Use Signposting?

In addition to the benefits signposting provides for the reader, it's also an important part of academic writing. While advertising what you plan to write about can seem repetitive and unnecessary in other types of writing, in academic writing it's an important part of the style. In fact, although it's not often discussed, it's one of the most important stylistic aspects to academic writing. When you're writing papers for classes or for publication, the professionals reading your work will expect you to include signposting.

Remember, academic writing isn't about being flashy or fancy. The goal of any piece of academic writing is to effectively communicate your ideas, and signposting is integral to that process. If you feel like you're spending too much time telling readers what you're about to talk about, then you're probably doing it right.

How to Use Signposting

So just how do you insert these signposts into your writing? It's actually an easier process that it might initially seem. In fact, you're probably already including some signposts as part of your regular writing process, and the key to good signposting is learning out to expand those signs and use them well.

Linking words and secondary signposts

The most basic signpost is something you probably already think about when you're writing: transitions. When you move from idea to idea and paragraph to paragraph you should be using linking words and phrases like on the other hand, furthermore, similarly, or as a result. These transitions help the reader understand the relationship between the ideas in your paper and will tell the reader what to expect from a sentence or paragraph even before they've read it.

When you use good transitions, you're doing the heavy lifting for the reader. Instead of having to guess what point you're trying to make or having to reread previous sections, readers are being guided to the conclusion you want them to reach. Without these signposts, your readers will have to put in a lot more work-and that's never something you want in academic writing.

Another set of common secondary signposts are list words. Especially when you're including a complex list or discussing a list over a long span of text, it's important to include words like first, second, and lastly. These words will help the reader remember not only that they're reading items in a list but also where they are in that list. As the writer, the items in a list will seem obvious, but remember the reader doesn't want to get lost in the middle of big block of text without a sign to tell them where they are.

Here's a list of some common secondary signposts that should appear throughout the main body of your text:

Transitions:

  • for example/for instance
  • on the other hand
  • as a result/consequently
  • also/in addition/furthermore
  • because of/due to
  • however
  • in other words

Lists:

  • first(ly), second(ly), third(ly)
  • finally, lastly
  • primary, secondary, tertiary

Directions:

  • in the previous section/paragraph/chapter
  • as was discussed/outlined/explained above
  • having looked at ____, it is now important to ____.

Major signposts

While secondary signposts should be placed throughout the paper, major signposts generally belong is the introductory and concluding sections of a paper or chapter. These words and phrases are used to directly address readers and steer them through your work. In the introduction, signposts will usually tell the reader what your main argument is going to be and how your paper is organized; in the conclusion, signposts will tell the reader that you're starting to wrap up your argument.

The exact wording of major signposts will vary by field. Some disciplines allow writers to use first person and directly address the reader ("In this essay, I will argue that...") while other fields require authors to use third person and passive voice ("The purpose of this study is to..."). Either way, the main goal is the same-you want to tell the reader exactly what is going to happen in your work. Also keep in mind that signposts should appear every time you start a new section or chapter.

Phrases like "this essay will argue that..." and "the purpose of this study is..." might seem dry and obvious, but they're an important part of the academic writing style. Students often want to leave these types of phrases out of their work because it they seem awkward, but with practice you'll get used to seeing and using them.

Major signposts:

  • the purpose of this essay is...
  • in this thesis I will argue that...
  • this paper will include X number of sections...
  • in this chapter...
  • in conclusion...

Topic sentences and signposts make an essay's claims clear to a reader. Good essays contain both. Topic sentences  reveal the main point of a paragraph. They show the relationship of each paragraph to the essay's thesis, telegraph the point of a paragraph, and tell your reader what to expect in the paragraph that follows. Topic sentences also establish their relevance right away, making clear why the points they're making are important to the essay's main ideas. They argue rather than report. Signposts, as their name suggests, prepare the reader for a change in the argument's direction. They show how far the essay's argument has progressed vis-ˆ-vis the claims of the thesis. 

Topic sentences and signposts occupy a middle ground in the writing process. They are neither the first thing a writer needs to address (thesis and the broad strokes of an essay's structure are); nor are they the last (that's when you attend to sentence-level editing and polishing). Topic sentences and signposts deliver an essay's structure and meaning to a reader, so they are useful diagnostic tools to the writer—they let you know if your thesis is arguable—and essential guides to the reader

Forms of Topic Sentences

 Sometimes topic sentences are actually two or even three sentences long. If the first makes a claim, the second might reflect on that claim, explaining it further. Think of these sentences as asking and answering two critical questions: How does the phenomenon you're discussing operate? Why does it operate as it does?

There's no set formula for writing a topic sentence. Rather, you should work to vary the form your topic sentences take. Repeated too often, any method grows wearisome. Here are a few approaches.

Complex sentences.  Topic sentences at the beginning of a paragraph frequently combine with a transition from the previous paragraph. This might be done by writing a sentence that contains both subordinate and independent clauses, as in the example below.

 Although Young Woman with a Water Pitcher depicts an unknown, middle-class woman at an ordinary task, the image is more than "realistic"; the painter [Vermeer] has imposed his own order upon it to strengthen it. 

This sentence employs a useful principle of transitions: always move from old to new information.  The subordinate clause (from "although" to "task") recaps information from previous paragraphs; the independent clauses (starting with "the image" and "the painter") introduce the new information—a claim about how the image works ("more than Ôrealistic'") and why it works as it does (Vermeer "strengthens" the image by "imposing order"). 

Questions.  Questions, sometimes in pairs, also make good topic sentences (and signposts).  Consider the following: "Does the promise of stability justify this unchanging hierarchy?" We may fairly assume that the paragraph or section that follows will answer the question. Questions are by definition a form of inquiry, and thus demand an answer. Good essays strive for this forward momentum.

Bridge sentences.  Like questions, "bridge sentences" (the term is John Trimble's) make an excellent substitute for more formal topic sentences. Bridge sentences indicate both what came before and what comes next (they "bridge" paragraphs) without the formal trappings of multiple clauses: "But there is a clue to this puzzle." 

Pivots.  Topic sentences don't always appear at the beginning of a paragraph. When they come in the middle, they indicate that the paragraph will change direction, or "pivot." This strategy is particularly useful for dealing with counter-evidence: a paragraph starts out conceding a point or stating a fact ("Psychologist Sharon Hymer uses the term Ônarcissistic friendship' to describe the early stage of a friendship like the one between Celie and Shug"); after following up on this initial statement with evidence, it then reverses direction and establishes a claim ("Yet ... this narcissistic stage of Celie and Shug's relationship is merely a transitory one. Hymer herself concedes . . . "). The pivot always needs a signal, a word like "but," "yet," or "however," or a longer phrase or sentence that indicates an about-face. It often needs more than one sentence to make its point.

Signposts

Signposts operate as topic sentences for whole sections in an essay. (In longer essays, sections often contain more than a single paragraph.) They inform a reader that the essay is taking a turn in its argument: delving into a related topic such as a counter-argument, stepping up its claims with a complication, or pausing to give essential historical or scholarly background. Because they reveal the architecture of the essay itself, signposts remind readers of what the essay's stakes are: what it's about, and why it's being written. 

Signposting can be accomplished in a sentence or two at the beginning of a paragraph or in whole paragraphs that serve as transitions between one part of the argument and the next. The following example comes from an essay examining how a painting by Monet, The Gare Saint-Lazare: Arrival of a Train, challenges Zola's declarations about Impressionist art. The student writer wonders whether Monet's Impressionism is really as devoted to avoiding "ideas" in favor of direct sense impressions as Zola's claims would seem to suggest. This is the start of the essay's third section:

It is evident in this painting that Monet found his Gare Saint-Lazare motif fascinating at the most fundamental level of the play of light as well as the loftiest level of social relevance. Arrival of a Train explores both extremes of expression. At the fundamental extreme, Monet satisfies the Impressionist objective of capturing the full-spectrum effects of light on a scene.

 The writer signposts this section in the first sentence, reminding readers of the stakes of the essay itself with the simultaneous references to sense impression ("play of light") and intellectual content ("social relevance"). The second sentence follows up on this idea, while the third serves as a topic sentence for the paragraph. The paragraph after that starts off with a topic sentence about the "cultural message" of the painting, something that the signposting sentence predicts by not only reminding readers of the essay's stakes but also, and quite clearly, indicating what the section itself will contain. 

Copyright 2000, Elizabeth Abrams, for the Writing Center at Harvard University

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