Give me a sign!


Travelling in a new city?

I bet you depend on street signs and maps to understand the lay of the land. Just as street signs help us navigate a place, literary signposts help us navigate a text. They prime us to receive what lies ahead, making it easier to comprehend and retain information. Without them, we may find it more difficult to follow an argument or even understand the author’s point.

If you’re writing to inform, persuade or explain, you want readers to comprehend and retain your message. But how do we signpost?

There are many ways to show readers where you’re going. Using a variety of devices generally makes for more interesting reading.

Here are just a few ideas for signposting your story:

Headings and subheads

Longer nonfiction works frequently use these to structure text logically. Separating text into sections enables readers to digest pieces of information or elements of an argument. Headings foreshadow the ideas we’re about to read, providing a scaffold to help us comprehend and retain the message.

Some works, such as Steve Bidulph’s 10 things girls need most, have many subheads, which – along with images – make it easy for readers to dip in and out of the book. By flicking through we can work out the topic and order of each section.

In the text itself

Signposts frequently appear within the text itself, in various forms. There’s your classic school-essay style (‘In this essay, I will argue that …’), which is often appropriate in an introductory chapter – such as in Les Robinson’s Changeology. The introduction concludes:

‘This book proposes that successful and sustained change efforts happen when six different ingredients come together…In six sections of the book I examine each ingredient in detail, aiming to capture collective learning of many practitioners and theorists, giving inspiring examples, and examining experimental research to explain why some approaches work and others don’t.’

But they can also be much more subtle. Take this example from Anne Lamott’s Bird by bird: some instructions on writing and life:

‘The very first thing I tell my new students on the first day of a workshop is that good writing is about telling the truth.’

What a simple, elegant opening: it piques our interest, and gently draws our focus in to receive her wisdom.  

Stories and questions

In Bicycling Magazine’s New cyclist handbook, a chapter called ‘Principles of training’ opens with a story about how a 30-something stockbroker working 80-hour weeks and cycling two hours a day developed multiple sclerosis. Following the story is the question: ‘Can too much cycling make you sick?’

This question – along with the subheads ‘Hard evidence’, ‘Moderation means safety’ and ‘Signs of doing too much’ – frames the chapter. As readers, we see immediately where the discussion is going and we’re ready to receive the information. These signposts help us read quickly and retain information – or skip the section if we can see it’s something we’re not interested in.

It’s worth noticing the different ways writers signal their intent (open any half-decent non-fiction text and see how many you can spot). Then re-read your own work with an eye for mapping your message to guide your reader safely to the end.

May your words pour onto the page,

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