Signposts, like traditional transitions, prepare a reader for changes in an essay’s direction. But rather than easing the shift from one paragraph to another, signposting signals a new section or mode of the writer’s argument. A signpost might, for example, indicate that the essay is:
➢ pausing for historical background or context;
➢ about to present a countering claim;
➢ raising a new question;
➢ turning to another writer’s ideas; or
➢ introducing a new method of analysis.
In addition to guiding readers, signposting also helps writers articulate and control arguments.
Here’s how one writer, John Baran, indicates how he will address a question he’s just raised:
“If an understanding of Madonna’s attraction to Kabbalah and how it affects her art is to be obtained, an explanation of Jewish Mysticism must be acquired first. Furthermore, in order to begin understanding Jewish Mysticism and its practices, it is imperative to examine some of the historical aspects of the oral traditions of Rabbinic Judaism” (Baran).
In these two sentences, the writer sketches two steps in his methodology. Firstly, he determines that the larger question of “Madonna’s attraction to Kabbalah and how it affects her art” requires knowledge of Jewish mysticism (sentence 1). In the second sentence, he gazes down the road a bit further, telling us that the first step in this knowledge of Jewish mysticism is a background in the “oral traditions of Rabbinic Judaism.” Not surprisingly, then, the next few paragraphs go on to provide this background. Notice that the writer not only alerts us to the upcoming sequence, but also marks its role in the larger project—exploring what all this has to do with Madonna’s work.
Later in this essay, the writer again signposts, this time to introduce a new source and indicate how he will use it:
“The expensive water and magic bracelets that [Kabbalah Center] members are obligated to purchase certainly are red flags, especially since both items are considered to hold powers of protection and healing. But the uses of such religious items are purely dogmatic, and the reasoning of dogma can only be argued by contrasting beliefs from other faiths. An argument against a religion which is based on the philosophy of another is not justification of declaring said religion a cult. Therefore, arguing about a religion’s spiritual practices may not lead to an answer. However, organizations such as The International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) may supply some clarification and provide tools to assess a possible cult status” (Baran).
As the final sentence suggests, the writer moves from this paragraph into an assessment of Kabbalah Center practices using an ICSA text to generate evaluative criteria. His signpost thus indicates a turn to a new source and identifies the role it will play in developing the larger argument.
If your essay needs some signposting, try this three-step process:
➢ Divide your essay into sections. Where are new sources or analytical methods introduced? Where are you setting up a sequence of background or historical context followed by analysis? Essentially, where do you shift from one kind of writerly work to another? Mark these turning points.
➢ Reflect on the whole. Now ask yourself how each turning point contributes to the larger essay. For example, John Baran writes that explaining the oral traditions of Rabbinic Judaism happens in order to help the reader understand Jewish mysticism. It’s important that you signpost not only to transition, but also to remind the reader of the essay’s organization. To do that, you need to know why each section does the work it does.
➢ Write the signposts.
Baran, John. “Mysticism and the Material Girl.” I Magazine. 19 Feb. 2010. <http://www.baruch.cuny.edu/writingcenter/imagazine/index.html>.