I am about to publish a journal article that comes from my dissertation, and the copy editor removed almost all my signposting. I was always taught to include signposting in my writing, so I’m pretty confused by these edits. Aren’t journal articles meant to have signposting? How do you know when you’re doing signposting well?
– Anonymous, Social Work
Dr. Editor’s response:
It’s interesting that your copy editor removed almost all your signposting, since it’s common for academic writing to have too little signposting, not too much! For readers of this column not familiar with the term “signposting,” it means using “words or phrases that help articulate the structure of a piece of writing and ensure that readers don’t get lost” (Suffern, 2017). Signposting is usually recommended in academic research publishing, since this kind of signaling helps the reader to judge whether they want to invest time in reading your piece, while also making it easier for them to navigate the course of your text.
Without seeing what your copy editor cut, I can’t speak to the specifics of their decision-making, although you could certainly ask the editor at your journal for feedback from the copy editor on your signposting. But I can say that, yes, most journal articles are meant to have signposting – or, at least, in your discipline, social work, which doesn’t follow the IMRAD structure of scientific writing, journal articles should have signposting.
To learn more about how to signpost well, I spoke with Rachael Cayley, who has taught academic writing to graduate students in the graduate centre for academic communication at the University of Toronto for the past 15 years. Her book, Thriving as a Graduate Writer, comes out next month, and is available now for pre-order.
At the core of Dr. Cayley’s advice is a single tenet: “The job of a writer is to make the assimilation of material as easy as possible.” When it comes to signposting, here’s what that looks like in practice:
“I’m going to discuss …”
Your introductory paragraphs to your writing should describe your topic, your approach to that topic, and the contributions you’ll be adding to conversations about that topic. Some academic writers like to start with the background information to their topic; too often, this means the reader has no frame through which they can view and interpret that background. At its worst, this approach can sound like our undergraduates’ essays that begin, “Since the dawn of time …”.
Note, however, that you shouldn’t be making claims in your signposting, or providing evidence to support your claims – that’s too much detail. Instead, your signposting is pointing in the direction of your claims and evidence, describing to your reader the general topics they’ll find if they keep reading along the path of your text.
Giving your readers a sense of your topic, approach, and original contributions provides them with what Dr. Cayley calls “pre-understanding” – that is, a sense of the path your writing will take, on which they can then build their understanding of your work. Having “pre-understanding” makes the work of understanding easier to perform, which in turn makes your writing more persuasive and memorable.
In some disciplines, this level of clarity can feel inappropriate, as if complex topics always require complex prose. Dr. Cayley disagrees. While some academic writing, especially in the humanities, needs to break the rules of conventional discourse in order to convey their message, the opacity of much of academic writing is a norm, not a requirement. “For writers of theory, for instance,” says Dr. Cayley, “complexity can be an effect of the things that it is trying to do rather than an end in itself. There’s no reason you can’t write sentences like, ‘Being is an ineffable concept. In the next section, I will explore that ineffability by …’”
Will you write the phrase “I’m going to discuss” in your article’s signposting? No, probably not. If you need some example sentences or half-sentences to get your signpost-writing started, Dr. Cayley suggests spending some time with the University of Manchester’s Academic Phrasebank.
“The next step will be …”
In addition to describing your topic and approach, your signposting should provide your reader with a sense of structure. In Thriving as an Academic Writer, Dr. Cayley argues that readers of academic texts “tend to value explicit guidance. Readers need help understanding how you will be parceling out information. At the outset, a road map to your overarching structure can be invaluable. Along the way, guidance regarding the relationship between the current moment and the overall structure is crucial. Are you telling them something that has already been discussed or something new?” (p. 33)
There is, however, one caveat here. “The more predictable the text is, the less you need signposting,” says Dr. Cayley. In journal articles that follow a strict IMRAD structure, you don’t have to write, “First, I will review the relevant literature. Then, I will review my methods.” Because an IMRAD structure is conventional and well-known to academic readers, there’s no need for you to preview the structure of your piece. When you think about it, not all forms of academic writing necessarily include signposting: “It would be absurd to put signposting in something as compact as a grant application,” says Dr. Cayley – and I agree. If your journal article follows a predictable structure, dear letter-writer, that could be a reason your copy editor cut your words.
“As we have seen …”
As a final step to determining if you’ve signposted well, Dr. Cayley recommends dedicating a discrete step in your editing to reviewing your signposting. First, she says, go through your document and copy all the signposting, pasting it into a new document. Find every instance of “as we have seen …” and “now we’re going to see …”, and copy them over to your new file.
Then, read this new document, separately from the rest of your text. Does all the signposting still make sense? When you point to Thing A in a foreshadowing sentence, are you still pointing at Thing A in your reviewing sentence? If you aren’t, that’s a sign that your thinking has shifted during the writing process, and you’ll need to revise your signposting with careful attention.
Dr. Cayley’s Thriving as a Graduate Writer contains much more information about metadiscourse, signposting, and a range of effective writing strategies than can be conveyed in this brief article. For emerging academics struggling with structural issues, I specifically recommend this book’s fourth chapter, “Managing Structure: Helping the Reader Navigate Your Writing.”