Against Signposting

One of the main techniques by which writers create drama is by withholding information from readers. Unfortunately, it is difficult to use this technique in academic writing due to the nature of the peer review process. I frequently deal with reviewers who demand more “signposting.” They want everything to be revealed up front. No surprises. I resist because I believe that overuse of signposting is one of the main reasons so much of academic writing is so boring. Instead, I interpret these demands as a signal that I haven’t done enough to gain the reader’s trust.

If the readers don’t trust the author to provide just the right amount of information, in just the right doses, they will feel frustrated and confused. But if you can gain their trust they will be willing to go along for the ride, confident that all will be explained at the end. Unfortunately, the peer review process sometimes makes it difficult to have this discussion. In the end, we might settle for lazy signposting because it is easier than trying to convince an editor that the problem isn’t insufficient signposting, it’s insufficient trust.

The same problem plagues documentary filmmaking. Although the lack of peer review means filmmakers frequently have more editorial control, test screenings often result in calls for more signposting. Sometimes it is necessary, to be sure, but often the same problem can be solved in a more dramatic way.

And yes, I always tell my student that their papers need more signposting. Because they do…

13 thoughts on “Against Signposting

  1. I have had some interesting conversations about the rhetorical styles of English and German recently. English is expected to include more “signposts.” German on the other hand is more about suspense–signposts are less common, and the “surprise” is expected to be saved for the end, even in rather boring scientific papers.

    In English: “Tell them what you are going to tell them, show them what you told them, and finally tell you what you told them.” Or in everyday language: “Look how smart I am, “now I’m showing your how smart I am, and finally, “Look how smart I was.” I think that is why good signposts are important.

    Not sure how that works in German, but the point of the essay is also to explain how smart the writer is. And if the reader can’t figure that out–it must mean that they are not that smart!

  2. Tony, that’s interesting. Japanese writing may even more suspense-oriented than writing in German. An alternative, more academic view, suggests that the reader/audience for the presentation should not consider a conclusion before they have seen the relevant evidence.

  3. Count me an advocate for signposting. (It’s certainly possible to go overboard, of course — law review articles, for example, seem to be about 40% signposts and 60% actual content.)

    Suspense is great in pleasure reading. If I’m digging in to a novel for the experience of the story, then I enjoy letting the writer lead me along, moments of “oh, so that’s why that happened back there!”, etc. But I’m not reading academic writing for pleasure — I’m reading it to extract information, either substantive information about the topic of the research, and/or contextual information about the state of the field (theoretical approaches and methodologies being used, etc). I want to know up front exactly what to expect, so that I can decide quickly how much time to devote to this article and what things to be on the lookout for because they’re relevant to my interests. I’ve read too many articles — including ones by the “leading lights” in my field — that just ramble on for 20 pages then slap a conclusion on the end for me to be willing to just trust *any* author. And I find in my own writing that signposting is a good way to cure myself of the tendency to write that way.

  4. Vis-a-vis the comments about Germany and Japan: I note that the academic culture in both countries is FAR more deferential toward the senior professor than in America. There is clearly something going on with trust in a broader context than academic writing.

    This makes me suggest the hypothesis it may be a very good thing that we expect signposts instead of “trusting” the author to wrap things up.

  5. @John Hawks

    At least in the case of Japan you are right that the pattern holds in a broader context than academic writing. I first became sharply aware of this pattern in advertising pitches in which I participated while working for a Japanese advertising agency. There, however, the issue was not trust, or at least not trust as we are likely to think of it—a relationship of confidence in one God, one friend, one author. The author/presenter is conceived as being in a hierarchically inferior position to the reader/customer/client, where the underlying premise is captured in the phrase Okyakusama ha kamisama da (The customer is a god). In this context, it would be presumptuous to assert that only a single proposition is valid, then build a case to support that claim. Instead a variety of offerings are presented, from which the presenter hopes, the customer/god will choose one that the customer/god prefers. Starting indirectly and providing information that might be useful in making the choice is a sign of proper deference.

    I should also note, however, that the last couple of decades have seen a shift to more Western style presentations, largely under pressure from international clients whose executives present themselves as busy people who want to cut to the chase and choose to emulate Winston Churchill, who is said to have insisted during WWII that no strategy be presented to him on more than a single sheet of paper.

  6. Sign posting makes things easier to read. European academics often do it less than American ones, which is one of the reasons why their work is harder to read. What’s the point of burying the lead? Every good mystery begins with the detective finding the body — often the audience watches the murder scene itself. An academic piece with an argument which refuses to tell the reader what the argument is is like a mystery novel where you find out at the end that someone died. I’m sticking with signposting.

  7. While agreeing that sign-posting makes an academic paper easier to skim and, thus, to make rapid decisions about whether to read more thoroughly, I note as a cultural artifact the phrase “burying the lead,” which is language borrowed from journalism and indicative of a desire to push a particular story quickly instead of inviting the reader to consider alternatives to the story the author has chosen to tell. Could there be a correlation with the actual thinness of writing that only pretends to be thick description?

  8. “Every good mystery begins with the detective finding the body — often the audience watches the murder scene itself. An academic piece with an argument which refuses to tell the reader what the argument is is like a mystery novel where you find out at the end that someone died.”

    I can’t tell if Rex is just being deliberately provocative, but I don’t see how someone goes from “trust the author to provide just the right amount of information, in just the right doses” to “find out at the end that someone died.” Perhaps my post made it seem like too much of an either-or choice, but the point was that signposting is too often a crutch for bad writing and that there are often ways to solve the problem other than simply signposting. Many anthropologists (and quite a few who have reputations as good writers) start with a story and then provide an exegesis after. Not at the end, but after the story. My point was that too often the problem being solved by signposting could often be solved by better storytelling. It is harder to do, but often more rewarding.

  9. “My point was that too often the problem being solved by signposting could often be solved by better storytelling. It is harder to do, but often more rewarding.”

    I agree–how we tell the story matters. I also think you’re right that too much reliance on signposting is what can lead to writing that’s about as interesting to read as an appliance manual.

  10. Well, the title of the piece was “Against Signposting” not “Better Storytelling Makes Signposting Less Necessary” so in this case I think I was responding to a provocation, not making one!

    Also, way to clearly signpost your point in that entry there Kerim 🙂

  11. The English-speaking world is big on philosophical pragmatism, and I think it reflects in our writing styles. That is, make your one point, and then drive it home.

    Since we are on the subject of world leaders, one of Germany’s leaders (probably Helmut Schmidt) once complained about the Americans something along the lines of “The problem is that you Americans think every problem has a solution.” This difference of view meant that President Bush got the US entangled in Iraq in order to “do something” about the problem of Saddam Hussein in 2003, while the Germans stepped aside.

    For what it is worth, good thick description is not necessarily pragmatic. And indeed, much of what is good anthropology is thick description that despite Churchill’s protestations do not fit on one page. Indeed, if Churchill had read a little thick description rather than a one page memo before invading Gallipoli, maybe things would have turned out different!

    My one point: Not every good academic paper needs to have a solution, or even a problem. It takes all kinds, and some cultures/languages/disciplines do it differently.

  12. @John Hawks. In some ways the academic culture in Germany is indeed far more deferential than that in the United States, particularly on the symbolic level in which titles are awarded (and used), and the distancing that occurs because of the formal and informal you (i.e. du and Sie). But, Germany is much more social equality in Germany which bleeds into the university culture as well. For example, the Mensa (cafeteria) is used by all social groups from students up to the president. We are all there waiting in line for our food, even while using the deferential titles and pronouns.

    On the other hand, the student culture in Germany is far more confrontational than that in the United States. Students are used to reading difficult texts, and ask me more difficult questions than I get in the US. They are also more likely to call a student strike/demonstration and be politically active. THe student demonstrations last semester were over the high student fees in the state of Niedersachsen, which are about $650 per semester. During the year I have been here, several national level politicians have given speeches/campaigned on campus.

    In terms of administrative procedures, one of the of the peculiar things for me here in Germany is getting used to the idea that the grades I assigned are not “final” until approved by an external administrative office, the “Prüfung Amt.” Students can appeal my classroom procedures and grading policies by going there. I am also restricted in how many assignments I make and grade during the semester (the answer is usually zero–grades are typically based on a single exam or final paper).

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