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A Short Guide to Signposting in Essays: Home

What is signposting and why is it important?

Introduction

Your essay is a journey through your argument or discussion. Your paragraphs are stepping stones in that journey. Signposts help to guide the reader through. They indicate what will happen, remind them of where they are at key points along the way, and indicate the direction your essay is going to head in next. 

Signposting should happen in your introduction and throughout your whole essay. There should be some element of signposting in each paragraph. Signposting can be useful for linking your paragraphs together. It also makes the reader feel as if you are in control of the structure. 

When should you signpost?

Signposting in an introduction

The signposts in your introduction should indicate:

  • what is the overall aim of your essay ('This essay intends to...')
  • what ideas or factors will be discussed and in what order ('Firstly... secondly...finally...').

You may also wish to:

  • Justify why you have chosen to focus on certain aspects of a topic ('For this reason...will be the main focus of the essay.')
  • Quantify your aims or the content of your essay ('This essay will discuss three approaches to the issue of...')

Signposting throughout an essay

Throughout an essay you will probably use two types of signposting: small and large scale.

1. Large Scale signposting tells the reader specifics about what is to come or what has gone before, for example:

'Having discussed the arguments in favour of the Third Way, it is also necessary to consider its limitations'. 

2. Small scale signposts are individual words or short phrases which help to signal direction, such as:

  • Consequently
  • As a result
  • Alternatively
  • However
  • Additionally

Examples of signposting phrases

Example: 

In order to understand the causes of the London Riots, it would be useful to apply sociological theories...

How it aids the reader:

The reader realises in advance that the writer is going to be using some theories to explore the causes of the London Riots. 

Example: 

Another aspect of Hardy's portrayal of Tess is...

How it aids the reader:

This reminds the reader that at least one aspect has already been discussed, and another is about to be revealed. 

Use signposts precisely

It can make your work seem sloppy if you use words like 'however' or 'conversely' in the wrong contexts. Avoid the temptation to dot signposting words throughout your text at random. Think carefully about the link between two paragraphs, and choose a word that effectively conveys that link. 'However' should indicate that you are adding something to the previous point. Consider the specific meaning of a signposting like 'consequently'- do not use it if the idea that follows is not truly a consequence of the previous one.

Remember: precise language help you to communicate more accurately and effectively with you reader.

Retrospective signposts

You can also signpost things you have already covered, as a reminder and summary to the reader. This should happen at the end of paragraphs, to highlight the point that you have made and its relevance to your essay question. You will also use retrospective signposting in your conclusion. 

You can also signpost things you have already covered, as a reminder and summary to the reader. This should happen at the end of paragraphs, to highlight the point that you have made and its relevance to your essay question. You will also use retrospective signposting in your conclusion. 

Some useful tips for signposting in conclusions

Look at the verbs you have used in your introduction (eg, suggest, discuss, argue). In your introduction, these will probably have been used in the future tense eg, 'This essay will discuss...' In your conclusion, you could use the same verbs but in the past tense eg, 'This essay has discussed...'

Your conclusion should remind the reader of the line of reasoning you have guided them through, and how your essay has answered the original question. 

Verbs can be signposts, too

When introducing quotes or referring to other people's work, think about the verbs you can use. These can act as signposts to the reader in terms of how you feel about the theories or ideas you are discussing. 

For example:

Shoolbred (2013) demonstrates...

Cooper (2014) claims...

Verbs like 'shows' or 'demonstrates' give the impression that you are endorsing a scholar's viewpoint, whereas verbs like 'asserts' or 'claims' indicate that you might be about to challenge their perspective. Again, it is important to be precise. Never use a verb like 'proves' if that person did not actually prove something. Additionally, be careful with words like 'portrays' and 'conveys'. Students often use them in the wrong context. Find out their exact meaning and use them wisely. 

Conclusion

Your reader should find it really easy to follow your line of reasoning and understand the links between your ideas. Therefore, learning to use signposts effectively will greatly improve your writing. Signposts should complement a strong essay structure. 

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