‘signposting’ your journal articles and chapters

Many early journal writers are asked to put more signposting into their articles. Indeed, journal editors often list lack of signposting as a reason for requesting revisions.  

So what is signposting and why is it needed?

Signposting is the construction of a ‘road map’ to the contents and argument of an article, chapter or thesis.  It is a particular kind of meta-narrative which allows the reader to understand the intentions of the writer, and to understand the way(s) in which the text will proceed.

The use of signposting is one of the rhetorical strategies that make the English tradition of academic argument recognisable from other kinds of writing. Together with citations, signposts signal to the reader that what they are reading is not journalism, not fiction, but  scholarly writing. (It is important to note that not all cultural traditions of academic writing use signposts in this way and some may actually find it insulting to be told ahead of time what is to come!)

When approaching the writing of an article/chapter  it is helpful to think of there being two narratives that need to be constructed – the substantive argument of the article/chapter, and the meta-commentary about the way that the argument is to be presented.

Writing signposts is analogous to what happens in formal debates when the opening speaker says something like: ‘Our team is going to argue that.. I will begin by presenting evidence that… the second speaker will add to this by focusing on …. The third speaker will provide… “ The second speaker then begins their speech by saying ‘The first speaker argued that.. I will ‘ and they then restate what they will do..  And at the end of the debate the lead person will say.. ‘ We have argued that.. we have presented evidence that.. this shows that.. ‘. This set of verbal signposts is intended to help listeners understand what is coming, why and how.

While journal signposting is not quite as tedious as the continued statements and restatements of the argument that occur in formal debates, something of the same work is done at the beginning and ending of an article, and may also need to be done once or twice in the middle.  

It is usual for an article introduction to create the research space – locate the work – and then provide the map. 

I am sure that, like me, you will find many published articles that are short on signposting.  This is testimony to the fact that lack of signposting may not be something which knocks an article out of contention for publication. There are neverthless two reasons for putting in a signposting meta-commentary.

The first is that putting signposts in removes the possibility that a reviewer will use absence as a possible reason for requiring corrections.

The second is that the signpost provides not only a road map for the reader, but also one for you as a writer. In setting out the way in which the article will proceed and why it is as it is, you provide yourself with a way of keeping check on where you are going, why and how.

There is no format for signposting and it would be very tedious if there was.  Despite this, it is helpful to look at articles and chapters to see how writers have managed the task of signposting. Here are three examples from some of my own writings:

Example One:

Poverty creates particular challenges for both positional leader/managers and functional leaders (Kugelmass, 2004) who are charged with reforming the schools that serve neighborhoods made poor. These are:

_ the challenges of dealing with the everyday realities of lives in poverty;

_ the challenges of the material realities of disadvantaged schools; and

_ the challenges of making a difference.

This chapter addresses each in turn and subsequently considers some consequences for leader/managers.

 This signposting lays out the four sections of the chapter to come.

Example Two:

In this paper we present a case to illustrate the possibilities of a policy analysis which works outwards from a single instance and one school. It mobilises a spatial theory which specifically addresses scales of activities and offers one possible lens on the relationships between the vernacular and the small, and the larger society. The case we consider is an answer to the ‘what is going on here’ question that arose for us while considering the micro-transactions of the lived experiences of contemporary secondary schooling in England; these were documented in a study which used ethnographic methods to explore the processes of vernacular school change. This paper does not address our specific project, which examined the ways in which schools took up the cultural offer made by Creative Partnerships (Jones and Thomson 2008; Thomson, Jones, and Hall 2009; Thomson and Sanders 2009; Thomson et al. 2009), but instead re-reads an example of data that consistently appeared in our field notes.

The case introduces a young woman we have called Maggie, and her friends. Using data generated from an ethnographic fragment and field notes from one day’s observation in a single school site, we ‘show’ the everyday lives of Maggie, her friends and their teachers through the space/time of one day in the life of ‘top-set’ Year 10 pupils. In order to make sense of this data and to generate understandings of the social and specific policy production of this series of events, we mobilise the ‘trilectics’ of spatial theorist Lefebvre (1971, 1991).

We begin by introducing Lefebvre’s social theory before explaining something of our empirical project. We provide a summary of Maggie’s school day, using selected field notes, before going on to a theoretically informed discussion of the ways in which Maggie and her friends negotiated both academic tasks and social identity work within the confines of their school day.

 In this introduction, the intention of the paper is established in paragraph one. The second paragraph notes the methodological and theoretical lens that will be used in the paper, while the third paragraph outlines the order in which the sections of the argument are to be presented.

Example Three:

Following Bourdieu’s argument about the social-personal, I seek in this paper to focus on an important aspect of my own professional life, that of the position of the headteacher. In particular I am interested in the ways in which headteachers continue to not only support, but also actively lobby for, more and more autonomy. I use my own experiences as ‘pointers’ to readings of the field and an analysis of the headteachers’ ‘game’. I speculate about the reasons for this play in the schooling field. My primary purpose in beginning with the apparently personal is, following Bourdieu, to locate the social.

 I begin in Part A with the ‘evidence’ that headteachers desire and work for an apparent ever-increasing autonomy.

This signposting signals the intention of the paper and something of the basis on which it has been written, both methodological and theoretical. It also provides a clear statement of what will happen in the first section. The next section continues the signposting in more detail.

Part A: the phenomenon of headteacher desire for autonomy

In this section I present evidence that policy shifts to extend school autonomy have been accompanied by expressions of headteacher satisfaction and also the desire for still further extension of apparent freedoms. I suggest that these headteacher behaviours are relatively constant over a relatively long period of time, across school sectors and in several different places (although I mainly discuss Australia and England). In making this generalisation, I do not want to suggest that this means that there are no differences between sectors, systems and times. Rather I want to argue, after Bourdieu, that headteachers are disposed, by virtue of the game they are in, to press for more authority and that this has been a relative constant in the field, despite the relative autonomies of time-space. This desire, I suggest in conclusion, is important to understanding the logic of much of their practice. I thus present a selection of evidence, spread over time, space and sectors, to illustrate this point.

 In this section I have also highlighted the kinds of verbs that signal the argumentative work that the reader will encounter. This is a furthering of the meta-commentary on the moves that will be made.  

 Papers cited:

(1) THOMSON, P, 2010. Leading/Managing Schools in Communities Made Poor. In: EVA BAKER, PENELOPE PETERSON,BARRY MCGAW,, ed. The International Encyclopedia of Education. 3rd edition. Elsevier.

(2) THOMSON, P, HALL, C and JONES, K, 2010. Maggie’s day: A small scale analysis of English education policy as a pedagogy of under-attainment. Journal of Education Policy, 25(5), 639-656.

(3) THOMSON, P, 2010. Headteacher autonomy: a sketch of a Bourdiean field analysis of position and practice. Critical Studies in Education, 51(1), 1-16.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in argument, crafting writing, journal, signposts. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to ‘signposting’ your journal articles and chapters

  1. Kylie Budge says:

    I love this post! I was just talking to a friend about this very topic last week. It’s such an overlooked skill in academic writing and one that is rarely spoken (or written) about. Thank you!


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  6. Stumbled on your blog in the nick of time. In the final hours of preparing an abstract. Thanks a bunch for the reminders.


  7. kaarthy says:

    Thank you! Sharing it with my students…


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