Effective SignpostingBy Erika Suffern
Signposts are words or phrases that help articulate the structure of a piece of writing and ensure that readers don’t get lost. Signposting will flag the most important parts of an argument, signal transitions, and clarify the stakes of an argument.
Here are some examples of helpful signposts:
“This essay examines biblical symbolism in Moby-Dick . . . ” This signpost states the focus of the essay.
“After a review of recent scholarship on biblical symbolism, I consider how Melville relates funerary symbolism to both death and rebirth . . . ” This signpost clarifies how the author’s focus is distinguished from previous scholarship.
“My purpose in focusing on Queequeg’s coffin . . . ” This signpost clarifies the stakes of the author’s argument.
Single words and short phrases can be useful signposts, such as additionally, consequently, however, also, in contrast. But make sure to use these words correctly. However should be used to pivot to an opposing idea or to acknowledge another side of an argument, and consequently indicates that an idea is a result or consequence of a previously discussed idea or point. Signposts that identify the sequence or direction of your argument can also be effective: for example, first, next, then, finally; or first, second, third, and so on.
Using signposts can improve your writing by giving it structure and direction, but excessive signposting creates unnecessary wordiness and can give the impression that you don’t trust the reader’s ability to follow your argument or that you’re grafting signposts on to compensate for a poorly articulated argument. Here are some signposts that may do more harm than good:
“It’s important to note that Melville’s treatment . . . ” Show, don’t tell, what is important.
“What I want to call attention to in this passage . . . ” Skip the wordy opening; lead with “In this passage . . . ”
“I will now turn to the pulpit of Father Mapple . . . ” If you’ve signposted your essay’s structure at its beginning, you don’t have to give directions throughout.
“As I argued in the previous section, the symbolism of the white whale . . . ” If the point has been well made, your reader will remember it. Summarize it briefly, but you don’t need to mention the earlier section.
Early drafts of an essay are likely to include some extra signposting, because you may be developing and revising the essay’s structure as you write. For this reason, it’s a good idea to read the final draft of a piece of writing with an eye toward its transitions and signposts, to make sure that they support and clarify your argument. At this stage of revision, you can eliminate any wordy or excessive signposts.
Erika Suffern is an associate editor at the MLA. She received a BA from Bard College and an MA from the University of Delaware and has ten years of editorial experience. Before joining the MLA staff in 2016, she was associate director of the Renaissance Society of America and managing editor of its journal, Renaissance Quarterly.
Published 30 March 2017