what is meta-text?


This post is a response to question – yes I do answer them if and when I can.

It’s not uncommon for doctoral researchers to find supervisors have written this feedback on a text – “You need more signposting here”. Occasionally they might say, “There is too much signposting here.”

So what is this signposting?

Signposting is a term used to describe a meta-text. A meta text is a kind of Greek chorus or internal narrator that speaks about the main action that is taking place. The word meta-text simply means a secondary text that talks about a main text.

When supervisors write about signposting, they are usually referring to three kinds of meta-text – the preview, review and overview.

In a nutshell:

  • Preview

A preview is when you say what your main text is about to do. Just like the preview of a television programmes, the written preview shows key highlights of what is to come. In academic writing, highlights are often either the major moves in the argument or the most important themes or chunks of content. Previews anticipate, look forward, fore-warn – and they must if possible generate interest as well as inform.

This chapter proceeds in three steps, 1,2,3. …

The next section will

  • Review

The review is where you take a look back and sum up where the text has got to. Reviews are often used at the end of a chapter to summarise the major message or the major points that the reader needs to remember before moving on. Sometimes reviews come in the middle of a paper or chapter. Midway reviews may be needed when the argument is complex and the writer wants to keep the reader on track. Reviews essentially say this is where we’ve been. Reviews synthesise, summarise, repeat and refer back.

This chapter has argued that…

So far the paper has established that 123…

It is important to pause at this point to consider the evidence that has been presented, 123…

In sum

  • Overview

An overview takes a look at a whole text rather than a section of it. An overview often combines a review with a preview. The first chapter in a thesis or the introduction to an edited book often even has a section called overview. This section typically summarises what has been said at the very start of the text, and then outlines all that is to come.

The overview can be thought of as a survey, a road map to the whole text, the future reading.

The thesis will argue that… Chapter One has established that…. Chapter Two… Chapter Three …etc.

By the end of this book the reader will… The steps in this argument are  x ( Chapter 1) y  (Chapter 2) etc…

In this report we show that … the first section… the second section…

So now you know what meta text is, here’s a couple more things to consider.

It can also be helpful to learn the three terms and their meanings. Talking about preview, review and overview might help you to ask more specific questions of your supervisor. So you can ask not only where more signposting is needed, but also what kind of signposting  there should be and whether there is the right amount of each.

It can also be useful when drafting to use more preview, review and overview than you want or need, as it can help to keep you on track. The process of refining your text then includes time considering what meta-text you really need, and then removing what’s surplus to requirements.

It’s not easy to get the balance of meta-text and text right. Clearly you don’t want to spend more words and time talking about the text than you give to the text itself! Meta-text is all a bit Goldilocks – not too much, not too little, it has to be just right. And feedback can actually help to find the balance, as friendly readers can tell you whether you have so much meta-text that they find reading your work a bit like listening to someone clearing their throat for a very long time. Or a reader can tell you if they just got hopelessly lost in the argument.

Balancing meta-text and text proper is also related to disciplines – some use more than others, social sciences typically use quite a bit. Balance is also related to cultural traditions – academic writing in English uses a lot more meta-text than in some other languages, where writing previews, reviews and overviews can even be seen as infantilising the reader.

Hope that’s helped. 

Photo by Ian Robinson on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, meta-text, overview, preview, signposts and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to what is meta-text?

  1. Felippe de Medeiros Oliveira says:

    I hope this blog becomes a book, one day.


    • pat thomson says:

      🙂 I’ve written four books on writing and edited two handbooks on doctoral research and supervision. Another book on revising is coming. See my books page and the right hand side of the blog.


      • Fatima khaled says:

        Thank you very much for this explanation of what is meta text which I understood is related to the balance of review , preview and overview. I also understood the differences between the review, preview and the overview.


  2. Another really helpful post – thank you


  3. Pauline McGonagle says:

    As always your guidance is invaluable. After very negative feedback from a piece I submitted this helps me assess the striking imbalances in my meta-data (although the term was not used). It will go a long way in helping my fix it! Thank you.


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