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Effective Signposting

I’ve often said in talking to candidates and students and researchers I work with, “You can’t over signpost”. But I’ve found that isn’t clear enough, and they come back with terrible writing that is boring and repetetive, but has lots of signposting in it.

After a few of these crossed my desk, and I was trying to explain what they were doing wrong, I had an ‘ahah’ moment. When they were writing, they were doing exactly what I told them to do. 

So what you need to do here, I would say, is to write “in this chapter, I will discuss X, you know, this part of my overall scope. Then you’ll explain your argument in some steps, perhaps include a description of your methodology here. Then give me the conclusion and its implications.”

So of course, what I’d get is:

In this chapter, I will discuss the implications of fruit flies on orange production in South Australia after 1980. First I will explain my methodolgy. Then I will describe the findings of my research. Finally, I will outline the major implications for the industry as a whole.

And I would feel the rage. ‘I know this stuff,’ I would think, ‘but why aren’t you telling me what you’re doing?’

On the blog, I’ve made it clearer: “You can’t over signpost your argument“. Not: “You can’t over signpost which kind of section you are in”. Not: “Explain what kind of paragraph this is”.

Tell me what you are actually going to say in the section or paragraph. Topic sentences, introductions and conclusions should contain actual information. (If you’re not sure if the information is actual enough, use the banana test–the paragraph above fails.)

***

To help explain the difference, I’m going to use a metaphor that’s really a kind of parable. This metaphor is one that my colleague Roger regularly used with his students, and I found it a helpful one.

Imagine you are in a strange country. You have just arrived at the airport and you catch a taxi, and give the driver the address of your hotel.

“No worries,” says the driver (we are clearly in Australia). “I’ll take you to your hotel.”

Now, you are an anxious passenger who has had bad experiences with taxis in other strange cities. You are on a tight schedule and a tight budget. You have looked up the hotel on the map and you want to be sure you are going the most direct route. You say so.

“No worries,” says the driver. “I’ll take you out the airport, we’ll go left, then right, then through the back ways. We’ll go through the tunnel and over the bridge. That will bring you straight to your hotel.”

You are not very reassured. The driver takes you along a freeway, and then through some winding backstreets. You go through a toll tunnel that takes you to the wrong side of the river and then you seem to loop back over a bridge. After cutting across 4 lanes of traffic, the driver drops you at your destination and charges you $37.50. You think this was a terrible taxi ride.

Now, let’s reimagine the driver had first said something like this:  “No worries. The fastest way into town is the freeway, but there are roadworks after Junction 10 so I’ll take you through round the back roads to cut through to the tunnel. It’s an extra $2.50 toll, but it will save you about 30 minutes in this traffic. There’s a bend in the river there, so it’s actually quicker for us to cross on the tunnel and come back on the bridge–and you’d have to pay about $3 on idling fees anyway, because the main road where your hotel is just gets chock-a-block after 4.30 when all the schools get out, so it’s a saving. What do you think?”

Again, the driver takes you along a freeway, and then through some windy backstreets. You go through a toll tunnel that takes you to the wrong side of the river and then seem to loop back over a bridge. After cutting across 4 lanes of traffic, the driver drops you at your destination and charges you $37.50. You think this was an absolutely fine taxi ride.

***

If you are doing original research, no-one has ever done this exact thing before. Your reader has never been where you have gone. What’s more, they are anonymous peer reviewers or external examiners, they really don’t know what you did or how you got there. You really can’t be too explicit:

In this chapter, I will discuss the implications of fruit flies on orange production in South Australia after 1980. First I will outline my use of semi-structured interviews with sixty farmers in the Tangeloville area. After analysing these interviews using constructivist grounded theory, two significant findings emerge. Firstly, that while publicity campaigns reduced the import of fruit and therefore of fruitfly during the 1980s, the incidence of fruitfly problems in Tangeloville was percieved as constant by farmers. Secondly, that the greater public awareness of fruit fly was matched by a greater perception of risk by farmers. This underlines the continuing importance of agricultural industries undertaking education and publicity campaigns, not only in farming areas, but more widely across the community.*

As you are reading this, you can already start to see what this chapter is going to do.

You can also start to critically analyse my research.  Is 60 enough people to interview? Were semi-structured interviews a good way to get the information I was looking for (or would a more quantative research method have been better?) Is constructivist grounded theory an effective way to analyse my data? Does that method help me to produce the kinds of findings I suggest? Are the findings plausable from the research as described? How does this research fit into my larger thesis or argument?

***

Because sometimes your reader has been doing this commute for a while, and while they don’t know how exactly to get to your unique and novel destination, they do know the area. Perhaps they’ll respond: “That’s not the best way to go. Come off the freeway at Junction 8, cut behind the Casino and turn right at the University. That way you avoid the Junction 10 roadworks, the slow back streets, the main street traffic, the $2.50 toll and having to come back across the bridge. It should take you 20 minutes and cost about $30.” And taking that advice, that’s how you learn to be a better driver.

—-

Footnotes:

* On Fruit Fly in South Australia.

* I made up Tangeloville. I never interviewed any farmers. etc etc. Just so that’s clear.

* On Constructivist Grounded Theory

* Image via andrewinmelbourne

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