Signposting in essays and reports

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1. In most essays (up to 3000 words) you should avoid ‘signposting’ your argument. That is, you do not need to use expressions such as

‘Later in this essay I will be discussing…’
‘Let us now go on to consider…’
‘As I demonstrated earlier…’
‘We will now turn to evaluate another example…’

2. Just state clearly the point of your arguments and leave them to speak for themselves, uncluttered by any direction indicators. You do not need to offer a commentary on what you have already said, or what you will be saying later. In a well-planned essay, this progression should be self-evident from the arrangement of your work.

3. A sound essay plan and a coherent structure will reveal the logic of your argument and the relationship of its parts. If you have, for instance, four main topics to discuss, simple state clearly what those topics are, then deal with them separately, one after the other.

4. Each new topic should be clearly identified or defined as soon as you begin dealing with it. This statement will provide all the indication needed of your intentions. Remember that each paragraph should deal with just one principal stage or item of your argument. Each new topic requires a separate paragraph.

5. If you wish to some light indication of structure, it is perfectly acceptable to use formulations such as

‘The first reason … The second…’
‘On one hand … on the other…’
‘However, the main argument against this is…’

These statements will demonstrate that you have control of your argument.

6. Remember that although an essay may take many hours to write, it will only take a few minutes to read. Signposting is only necessary in very long pieces of work. Even then, skillful writers will integrate any direction indicators into their work as unobtrusively as possible.

7. The conventions on signposting may vary slightly from one subject to another. In some of the sciences it is necessary to announce in advance what you will be writing about. However, these pieces of work are likely to be closer to experimental reports than continuous prose arguments.

8. Similarly, in some branches of psychology or linguistics, students may sometimes be required to offer a meta-critique of a written assignment. They will be expected to describe what they are writing. This is to demonstrate their awareness of the processes in which they are engaged.

9. With these few exceptions, you should not normally comment on the manner in which you have written an essay. Your tutor doesn’t need to know in what order you assembled your evidence, or what difficulties you encountered during its composition. Some students try to disarm possible criticism by announcing in advance how difficult the question was to answer. Your tutor will already know its degree of difficulty, and doesn’t need to be told again.

10. However, you may wish to argue that the question raises a certain number of difficulties or crucial issues. This is acceptable – so long as you say what they are. You should then go on to discuss their relevance to the subject in question, and maybe even suggest some answers to them.

11. The conventions on signposting in report writing are different. Reports are normally written to a pre-determined structure or set of headings. These provide the sequence of events which in a conventional essay have to be constructed by the author.

12. A report of an investigation or an experiment will also have its own sequence of events, so it will be quite acceptable to use expressions such as ‘First the X was added to the Y … and then Z occurred … The results were then analysed and are shown in Table One’.

© Roy Johnson 2003

Writing skills links

Signposting Tutorials, guides, and books, on writing skills

Red button Writing skills – a bibliography

Red button Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook

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