Thursday, 18 April 2013

Signposting

I often find what differentiates a strong piece of work from a really amazing one can often be described as the linkage/flow/signposting.  Many students understand the notions of linkage and flow, the idea that there is a logical progression and ideas develop in a way that is pleasing or logical (or both) to the reader.  Signposting, on the other hand, often sees a wrinkled forehead response. 
Where are we ? 
When I was writing my first dissertations, back in the pre-internet days of word processors, I didn't understand quite why so much focus was put on providing mini-summaries at the beginning and end of each main section.  I found writing the abstract, essentially a distillation of the summary to be annoyingly repetitive and often struggled to understand how to present essentially the same ideas in three different formats (abstract, introduction, summary). 

The expected approach is in reality, merely partly a referencing and indexing standard (you only read beyond the abstract if it continues to be relevant or interesting) and partly an effective communications device.  Whilst for the writer, a dissertation is very important focus, benefiting from months of detailed study and profound effort.  Most of the content is top of mind recall.  Many concepts and ideas have been internalised and result in fluent use of sophisticated new jargon.  The reader will approach the document with an entirely different perspective (we write for the average person in the street and assume no prior knowledge of any jargon or terminology) and this is why signposting is really important.  The reader, and particularly the marker, will be looking to quickly absorb the content and make a judgement on its value.  Cleverly embedded signposting will greatly help the reader make sense of the narrative. 

Like the news at ten, effective and tactical repetition of the key messages is crucial - "headlines" -  these are the five most important news stories of the day BOING item 1 BOING item 2 BOING item 3....to 5 or 6 perhaps, which then moves on to introduce the main body (or core news content) the topics in the same order (first being the most important, last being least important.  At the end (perhaps after a light hearted funny - as news tends to be sad and depressing) the headlines are repeated.  This is a formulaic mechanism, engineered to overcome our poor attention and information retention capabilities.  Good presentations also follow this kind of model - The topic and a route map of how the time is going to be used, main content and a summary. 

Which way next ?
So - imagine you are a mountain guide. You need to explain where the goal is, how far you have got, what the next phase will be like... this is often at the beginning and end of each main chapter - including a focus on that particular chapter - but you should also then put it in context of the wider piece of work.
As you progress in the journey up the mountain - as a guide you may need to motivate your party by encouraging them to gaze up to the ultimate goal, remind them of the path to get them there and also look back and reflect on progress achieved already.    Dropping in appropriate reflections on progress and drawing links to future and prior 'work' would be what lecturers describe as linkages, and the process of leaving these 'bread crumb trails' through any document, along with tables of contents, effective headings and in text "where are we, how did we get here, where are we going next" type content is particularly effective. 

This guide on signposting from De Montfort University may be useful too.