Can you have too much signposting?


Yes, yes, yes. Too much signposting is a Real Thing.

Pamela Haug, author of Revise, refers to signposting as traffic direction. Haug reckons that academic writers often spend too much time directing traffic and not enough time getting where they need to go. She says that too much signposting means that

You’re getting in the way of your own work – by either padding it with distancing, muffling or prefatory language – or objectifying it with explicit traffic directions, forecasting, signposting, recapping, overspecification, and procedural language. 

Haug suggests that academic writers are rather too fond of these kinds of textual conventions. Her work is primarily about helping academic book writers,. She advises us to focus first on flow, linkages and coherence rather than relying on various forms of signposting to keep the reader informed. She says

You want your reader to have a sense of direction and where they’re headed. But ideally, this confidence doesn’t come from the prose equivalent of the back-seat driver (or the GPS algorithmic equivalent) who nags about where to turn, and precisely when, and states repeatedly where you should go next, and worries about your speed. 

I suspect we can all relate to this navigational imagery. I certainly get annoyed by the disembodied voice from my satnav telling me the same thing over and over. Although I can see that hearing a route recalculation when I have taken an unnecessary textual turn might be quite helpful!

So why did you put the signposting in? Well, there was a good reason. When you’re drafting it can be very helpful to begin each chapter by outlining the argument you’re going to make. And then spell out the order of sections (moves) you have to write. This makes a pretty good road map for your writing. (It also makes the beginning of a book or thesis chapter more like the beginning of your standard individual journal article.)

But. Always the but. While it’s true that each chapter needs some meta-commentary at the start, the reader also needs something interesting and relevant to begin with, to convince them that this chapter is going to do new work. They may need to be told what the big point is. And context. And only a little about how the sections are organised. They don’t need so much detail that by the time they come to the actual sections they feel like they have already read the most salient points and now they are reading the same thing, just with more detail. Gah, deja vu.

There’s signposting at the end too. Book and thesis chapters typically end with a summary of the argument thats been made as well as flagging what is coming up next. When you’re drafting, this kind of chapter end is a helpful reminder of where you want to go next, pretty important when you’re writing a big text like a book or thesis. But some of this summary can be shortened. Or cut.

A long time ago my own supervisor said to me that the end of the chapter really just needed to say what I wanted the reader to most remember – that was the point of the chapter – and then there was an option to say where I might go next. This was good advice. Following this advice means that you only end up with about a paragraph at the end of a chapter and writing that is very succinct. It’s crunchy. Pithy. And that’s what a reader needs after several thousand words. They don’t want to read everything again in detail.

So do get ready to edit down your signposting. Your reader doesn’t need the level of detail that was helpful to you in drafting. Pamela Haug’s image of traffic direction and the annoying GPS is a good reminder of the potential of signposting and the problem. Perhaps it is useful to keep her words at the forefront of your mind when you’re redrafting and revising.

But I can see a bit of a risk in taking Haug’s words too literally. You probably don’t want to get rid of all the signposting in an academic thesis, paper or book. Recapping, forecasting and signposting are what a lot of reviewers and examiners expect. (There are of course journals, books, genres etc which don’t allow the hidden rules.) Traffic direction is the norm. It’s as well to bear that in mind. And examiners who are likely to be reading a Big Book thesis in episodes probably do need some textual help to stay on track.

However, it is highly likely that at least some of the signposting that lingers on in a penultimate draft can be abbreviated or removed altogether.

One way to begin to think about reducing words, as well as making your text more engaging for the reader, is to look at the traffic direction, as Haug helpfully describes it. The beginning and end of chapters. The introduction to and conclusion of sections. Ask yourself if you are beginning to sound like a nagging GPS. And if the answer is yes, then get out your  metaphorical red pen and rewrite/revise/reduce.