Help Me Write Better: How Much Signposting is Too Much Signposting in Academic Writing?

via Flickr user Kapungo, Creative Commons License

As I’ve been writing I’ve been thinking about the use of signposting in my writing. I have always thought the strength of my academic writing was my organization. I spend a lot of energy making sure a chapter/essay is built well and one way I do that is through very blatant signpost of what the essay/chapter is going to do (as you’ll see below.) I’ve been debating if I should go back and as part of the revision process, smooth over this blatant signposting. So, my question for folks out there on the internets is whether this is a good idea or not. Is signposting helpful? Is it distracting? Is it poor style? Will I lose clarity by taking it out? I’ve already tweeted and posted a Facebook status asking these questions but I thought an example might make it easier to get people’s ideas.  I know these questions might be hard to answer without reading the whole essay but I’ve put a chunk from the introduction of an essay I’m currently revising for submission below to give an example of what I’m doing. These are the last paragraphs of the introduction. Thoughts? Comments?

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It is arguable whether the haystack meeting was the birth of American missions or not, but it still serves as an exemplary American missionary story. The young men of Williams College in 1806 took part in a revival experience of the community around them. They read transatlantic letters and sermons describing the movement of the Holy Spirit at home and in Great Britain and studied the work of great British missionary leaders such as Wilberforce, Carey, and Ward. Then, after they had gone to the field themselves, they sent back letters, journals and accounts of the mission field to an Evangelical audience in America that consumed their stories along with stories of domestic revival.

This essay examines this process of traveling narratives. Specifically, I argue that the travel of revival narratives constituted the transatlantic revival at the turn of the 19th century. This revival and its narratives engendered the missionary movement in America which then in turn bred new narratives that traveled across oceans from the mission field to America, creating the sense of a global awakening.

To analyze this process of traveling transatlantic and transoceanic revival, I begin with a broad definition of revival that draws on examples from across American history. I provide a six point definition of revival that foregrounds the relationship between experience, narrative, and communication in the production and spread of revivals. I then closely track two of these six points: narrative and communication. To that end, I move from the broad view of revival throughout history to a view of the revivals from 1790 to 1820 in order to establish the transatlantic travel of texts—that is, the communication of narratives. I then hone in more narrowly again and focus on the narratives of British missionaries that found their way into American culture. Finally, in concluding the essay, the fourth, and narrowest section, reveals how narratives from the mission field were part of a growing American Evangelical print culture that joined foreign intelligence with domestic and British revival narratives to create a sense of global awakening.

But to begin, what is revival?

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3 thoughts on “Help Me Write Better: How Much Signposting is Too Much Signposting in Academic Writing?

  1. I don’t like to signpost in the introduction, because that’s the place where I try to “hook the reader” and make the topic as interesting as possible to the reader. Rather, I tend to defer signposting to the end of the method / theory section that follows the introduction. When I do it there, the signposting develops naturally out of the theoretical discussion and comes across as less self-conscious.

    In one article I published, the signposting went into the abstract.

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  2. In this case, the sign-posting works. Because the introduction exposes the organization of your argument–that is, it maintains a deliberate focus on structure–it makes sense to be explicit about the architecture of your essay here.

    Three minor quibbles emerge from your short extract that might benefit from revision. First, you use too many adverbs, many of them redundant (“Finally, in concluding…”). Brooks Holifield once told me that he cuts out all instances of passive voice and all adverbs when he revises his writing for publication. Second, some editors have an aversion to “verbalization”–transforming nouns into verbs. “Foreground” (as well as “signpost”) could stand revision. Finally, I have mixed feelings about the sentence “This essay examines this process of traveling narratives.” I used to appreciate the function of such epigrammatic summaries to introduce a paragraph. But when I drafted my prospectus, my adviser struck nearly all of them. He pointed out that they were non-essential in instances where the following sentence develops a similar strain of thought. In this case, you could do without the sentence in question, since the second sentence supplies all the pertinent information.

    That said, the article seems quite interesting; I’d love to read a fuller draft!

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  3. Thanks to both of your for you comments. They are, as usual, precise and insightful.

    Stephen, there isn’t a real theory heavy section to this essay. I open with a narrative description and then move into this bit just before I start in on my first major point. So, I think this is located in the place your talking about.

    Ryan, I’m glad you think the signposting works and your three points are spot on. I took a course with Holifield a while back and I think that your right about going back over the article with his eye. I have to get it in by July 1st but if you have time to read it over the weekend I’ll send it to you–but please don’t feel like you have to.

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