When teaching graduate students about metadiscourse, I often hear the same thing: “My supervisor doesn’t like metadiscourse.” If we think of metadiscourse in its more technical sense—as the various devices that help a writer structure a text to facilitate the reception of that text—it makes little sense to be against it. That would be like being against effective writing. But what this objection generally seems to mean is that the supervisor just doesn’t like it when too many of the seams are showing. Rather than being against metadiscourse in the broad sense, it’s possible that some supervisors are simply against signposting. Or at least against overly explicit signposting. Even if this explanation is correct, I still find this mistrust of signposting hard to understand: I think signposting offers a great deal of benefit to both the writer and the reader.
First, the writer. In my view, producing explicit signposting is unambiguously valuable for the writer. The act of describing—as bluntly as you wish—the order of what is going to happen in your writing is so useful. If you push yourself to write a road map for your text, you will gain insight into what you did (or didn’t do). Maybe you meant to do something and then didn’t end up doing it. Or maybe you did something and need to explain why. Of course there are limits. I certainly hit mine when the introduction to a standard IMRD paper ends with this sort of passage: “The next section will present the method. The results section will discuss the results. Then the discussion section will discuss those results. Finally the article will conclude with a conclusion.” This (real) example is obviously an outlier, but it may help to explain why some are so suspicious of the practice. What the suspicion overlooks, however, is how much we can learn, as writers, from the task of trying to articulate where we’ve been or where we are going in a text. When the signposting feels circular, as in that last example, it probably isn’t necessary. But much of the time, the structure isn’t that transparent and articulating it will be instructive for you as a writer. But will it be good for the reader?
Often the answer to that question, in my mind, is also yes. As readers, we appreciate being told what’s up. Academic writing is full of thickets; having access to the writer’s explanation of the structure can ease our way through. However, to return to our starting point, just because signposting is potentially helpful doesn’t mean that some readers won’t find it irredeemably artless. Given its utility, there must be a way to avoid throwing the baby out with bathwater. Can we find a way to let useful-to-write signposting evolve into instructive-to-read signposting?
Here’s a place to start:
In this chapter, I will begin by discussing the background to my topic. With that background in place, I will turn to an evaluation of the relevant literature on this topic. The next step will be a re-interpretation of my problem in light of this literature. I will conclude by considering the implication of my topic for the broader field.
This is the sort of passage that gives metadiscourse a bad name. Obviously, it’s weak because it lacks all specificity; if other writers could easily lift your signposting and drop it into their writing (with little-to-no alteration necessary), it’s not doing much for you. Here’s what happens when we make this passage a little less generic:
In this chapter, I will begin by discussing the background to [my topic]. With that background in place, I will turn to an evaluation of the relevant literature on [my topic]. The next step will be a re-interpretation of [my topic] in light of this literature. I will conclude by considering the implications of [my topic] for [my field].
A little better, right? It still feels way too much like an academic Mad Lib, but it would definitely be more informative than the first passage. The next step is to take this passage and transform it into one that reflects the demands of the project rather than just detailing the parts of the text.
The first step in discussing [something] must be a consideration of [some sort of background issue]. To get a better feel for [this issue], we will need to look at [a particular aspect of the literature]. The dynamic that we see between [these two strains of thought we’ve identified in the literature] will provide a new way to understand the [current topic]. It is only when we see [this topic] in this new way that we can grasp its implications for the broader project of understanding [some issue facing the field as a whole].
This third passage is potentially better because it tries to indicate the way that the topic needs to be discussed. By describing what is to come as inherently necessary for this topic rather than as just a series of textual steps, we can arm the reader with useful fore-knowledge without relying on road-map boilerplate. This approach to signposting stands the best chance of informing the reader without deadening the writing. However, this more sophisticated signposting won’t appear in our writing out of thin air. Most writers need to learn to describe their texts in this way; crafting more explicit bits of signposting can be an essential first step along that road. Most of us will be able to produce subtle and instructive signposting only once we grasp the internal structure of our text. Drafting a provisional signposting passage can be an invaluable way of gaining that initial understanding and thus enabling us to craft a more evolved explanation of our own texts. If we give writers the idea that signposting is inherently clunky and part of a broader problem of academic writing, we may lead them to miss out on its beneficial effects on their own thinking and writing.
While it isn’t directly relevant to our discussion here, I can’t resist ending with one of my favourite examples of understated signposting. At very end of the introduction to Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, Joseph Williams tells us what is to come (emphasis mine):
“No one can teach clear writing by rule or principle, simple or not, to those who have nothing to say and no reason to say it, to those who cannot think or feel or see. But I also know that many who see well and think carefully and feel deeply still cannot write clearly. I also know that learning to write clearly can help us think and feel and see, and that in fact there are a few straightforward principles—not rules—that help. Here they are” (p. 14).