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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Say No To Signposting

You really don't need it as much as you might think you do. I've written a whole article with virtually none, and it worked out fine. I don't think a reader will even miss it. I don't think a reader will even say, "Wow, a whole article with no signposting," because the absence of it won't even register. Signposting is distracting, but its absence is not. I guess there could a few academic readers who say, "What's this about, no jargon, no self-referential signposting, no acadamese. This person obviously doesn't know how to write." That's a risk I'm willing to take.

What about an introduction to a book? Don't you have to say, "In chapter 4, I will argue that the novels of Roberto Bolaño..." ? As a first step I would suggest something like this. "The novels of Roberto Bolaño--the subject of Chapter 4--..." The rest of the sentence will state your argument without saying that it is your argument. Of course you wouldn't use that exact formula in each paragraph of the chapter summary. As long as the reader knows that it is a chapter summary, you might even get away with suppressing even those parenthetical reminders. What if you were summarizing the last chapter, then you could start out that paragraph with "The novels of Teresa de la Parra, finally, ...." It would be implied that this is the subject of the last chapter. I'm not against discursive markers like finally, that simply signal the stages of a discussion.

10 comments:

Thomas said...

It's a risk you're willing and able to take. Not only are you a competent writer, you've got the creditability (credit) that allows you take some risks.

You're imagining a world without signposting, a world without literature reviews (replaced by properly-referenced theory sections). We all want to live in that world.

Some may say, you're a dreamer.

Clarissa said...

Thank you so much, Jonathan! This is very very helpful.

Whenever I read a scholarly book, I always feel so bored with the obligatory enumeration of what each chapter will do. Your suggestions sound perfect as a way to avoid that.

Bronwen said...

Thanks! I've really been appreciating these posts on sign-posting. I'm trying to think about how and when to use it or not use it, and reading the various chapters of other members of my writing group has given lots of examples to consider.

Maybe a side question: when do you use "I" in your academic writing? How do you deal with readerly responses to a specific point in a text (the reader, I, we, passive constructions etc.)?

Jonathan said...

Passive voice to avoid the 1st person singular is bad. If you are saying "I will show that..." you shouldn't change that to "It will be shown that..."

The question of how to describe a reader response to a text is tricky. I usually describe the text as confusing rather than saying the reader, or I, or we, are confused. An impersonal mode that is not passive but pseudo-objective. I tend to reserve "I" for genuinely autobiographical moments, where the I is relevant.

Every writer has to figure out his or her own approach to voice and the "persons of the verb." As I've gone more classic I've eliminated some personal markings along with signposting.

fjb said...

It's probably because I'm a "philosopher by training," but I sometimes balk at your anti-signposting posts. I really do think that there are some kinds of work where the argumentative structure is sufficiently intricate that it would be -very- difficult to write up (much less understand, except after multiple readings and reconstruction) without some explicit flagging. Obviously, the marriage of clarity and elegance is ideal, but where communication of content is paramount, there are some situations where a -bit- of elegance can be sacrificed.

Jonathan said...

As a reader I don't find that the signposting in philosophical and theoretical texts makes them any easier to follow. Really clear philosophical writing, like Descartes, is very "classic" and not prone to too much of the "let me first consider this, before backtracking to that."

But you may have a point that I have not considered the need for signposting in a kind of text that I myself don't write, or care to. I could certainly change my mind. I'm not opposed to connective tissue per se, just certain uses of it. I think I could show almost any writer who uses a lot, how to use a bit less with no sacrifice of clarity. Usually elegance increases clarity...but perhaps not always.

Andrew Shields said...

State your argument without saying it's your argument: that's the essence of avoiding signposting. Well put!

fjb said...

Well, I certainly think it can be (and is) overdone, even in the kind of writing I have in mind. 3 "buts," though: (a) I'm not sure Descartes is as clear as you say; he may seem so as the arguments are now very familiar and we've heard them (or standard interpretations thereof) recapitulated many times. (Long-standing controversies over -exactly- what argument "cogito ergo sum" expresses indicate this.) (2) There is some signposting in the Meditations, though in the guise of the (somewhat literary) framing device of the "days" on which the author claims to have gone through the stages of his investigation. (He sometimes refers to his "thought of last night," etc.) (3) That said, and "classic" or no, any current professional philosopher who took Descartes's texts as a model for his submissions to peer-reviewed publications would be in for some rude shocks!

Jonathan said...

Who would be a good stylistic model for a contemporary philosopher? Searle maybe?

fjb said...

Searle, maybe - older articles, not recent big-picture books. Judith Jarvis Thompson, John Rawls, Harry Frankfurt, Tyler Burge. Donald Davidson is a much more elegant essayist than most philosophers of language (and, frankly, the unambiguity of argument suffers a bit as a result, but it hasn't kept his work from being influential). Very technical work, esp. in logic or metaphysics, is another animal. (Though Quine is actually a good and often engaging writer.)