Readers of this blog may know that a big part of my work-life is reading and commenting constructively on other people’s writing – PhD scholars, postdoctoral fellows, peers. I spend hours each year immersed in people’s words, ideas, arguments and theses. And, while this work is difficult, and can be really draining of my own writing energy, it has the benefit of giving me a deeper awareness of what makes a piece of writing work, and what does not. In this post I want to reflect specifically on ‘signposts’, as a tool to create a more coherent, reader-friendly text.
When we read, our brains work to make sense of what is in front of us. When the writer has worked hard to ensure that what we are reading is well thought-out, and carefully put together, this is easier. But, when the text is ‘patchy’, and the links between the pieces are unclear, this sense-making work becomes harder. As a reader it is frustrating, because it’s hard work. Readers who have to work too hard may give up and move on to reading something else. So, as a writer, putting this kind of text out there is risky. What we need to be putting out there for our readers is a text where the ‘moves’ we are making in putting the story together are clear, and signalled, so that the reader’s work is less trying to work that all out, and more trying to engage with and appreciate the story itself.
So, you are writing a paper. You have a basic argument in mind – a claim, or series of claims that you know you need to make. You have done your reading, and have notes around the evidence that will go with these claims to support them. You start writing, and the argument develops and may take a somewhat different turn to what you originally thought. You start to worry that you have lost your argument thread – what are you actually saying anymore? How does this all fit together? Does it, even? This is all the first draft (and maybe second draft) process of working out what you are actually trying to say, and whether and how you can say it in this paper. Totally on track so far.
Where the more conscious connecting, and care, comes in is usually on draft three or more, where you have to start making the thread of the argument clear, and overt, for the reader. This is where you need to start thinking about structure, coherence, and the tools you can use to ensure this. There are a couple of tools that I use, as ‘sign-posts’, to guide readers through my argument. These are ‘foreshadowing’, descriptive sub-headings, and clear transitions.
This, in essence, is a tool that uses clever repetition to create links in the readers’ minds between paragraphs, and sections, of the paper. Repetition is often discouraged in academic writing, but there is a use for it, when it consolidates and advances the development of your argument.
See how these writers have used the term ‘bridge’ in the text, and then again in the sub-heading. And, how they have connected this idea of a bridge to disciplinary knowledge structures. This term, in a different way, is then repeated under the sub-heading, and the effect for the reader is to see, without being told in a sentence that starts with ‘The next section will …’, that they are going to read about what the writer thinks this bridge is, and how it is connected to knowledge in the disciplines. The value of trying to use repetition, carefully, to build connections between ideas, as well as complexity of ideas, over the course of a paper, is that you show the reader what your argument is (and why it is useful), rather than telling them what it is. This is a more reader-friendly approach, and more likely to engage the readers with the argument itself, than with the way the argument is structured.
Not everyone is allowed to do this. If you are writing for a journal in the natural or applied sciences, or that has a more ‘traditional’ approach to journal article structure, you may be given your subheading (Introduction, Materials and Methods, Results, and so on). But, if you are writing in a field, and for journals, that is less prescriptive about this, consider using your sub-headings, with your text, to create sign-posts for readers to move them from one sub-section to the next as your argument builds.
Instead, for example, of ‘Literature review’, consider the main claims or points this section is contributing to the argument overall, and create a sub-heading that captures this. Instead of ‘Theoretical Framework’ or ‘Discussion’, try headings that capture what the theory or discussion contribute to the argument. This further enables the reader to see each step of the argument, and how they are being led in one direction, rather than wandering around in circles or zig-zags. See the examples below, and how the authors use a mix of foreshadowing and descriptive sub-headings (e.g., ‘driven by economic concerns’ and then ‘Drives to increase…’
And here: they introduce the notion of the ‘politics of disciplinarity’ in the text, along with the ‘university system’ and then show with the sub-heading that they are moving forward to elaborate on these issues in the next section of the paper.
If you are working in a field that will not look kindly upon descriptive sub-headings, you will need to think more creatively about the transitions you create for your readers. I urge you to go beyond statements, like ‘the next section will discuss X’. Too many of these, and the reader starts to feel like they are being taken through a list of points, rather than a joined-up argument. Rather, think about what you have been writing about, and where you are going next, and what the ‘content’ connection is. What is the link between the present section, or paragraph, and the next one? How are they connected together in light of the overall point of this section, and the unfolding argument? Try to capture that in the transitional sentences.
Hopefully, in these examples, you can see a small sense of what I am arguing for – a form of showing your reader your argument, through carefully thought-out links and transitions between paragraphs and between sub-sections that ‘sign-post’ the steps of the argument as it builds.
If you do not pay attention to sign-posting your argument, especially through carefully and clearly connecting ideas, and claims, to one another as part of a coherent whole, the effect on the reader is usually one of two things, in my experience. The first is the sense that they are reading a list of ideas – they may be in more or less the right ‘order’ to be making an argument, but the ways in which you are joining them together are left to the reader to figure out. The second, is the sense that this is a jumble of ideas, not all of which may belong in that paper, or chapter. Neither make for a reader-friendly experience, and if the reader is lost, or annoyed, or struggling to make sense, this is not good for the writer.
Clear, careful, and visible signposts that are creatively woven into your text take time, and work, and iterations of drafting and feedback from readers. But, they are the ‘glue’ that binds your argument together.