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July 23, 2011 7:34 AM   Subscribe

"In this column I want to look at a not uncommon way of writing and structuring books. This approach, I will argue, involves the writer announcing at the outset what he or she will be doing in the pages that follow."
posted by shivohum (60 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oh man. These are the kind of verbal tics I have to remove from my MeFi posts all the time. A whole book of them? Yeesh.
posted by benito.strauss at 7:37 AM on July 23, 2011


While a whole book of that sounds horrible, I wish we had a little more of that in certain contexts. There's a certain style of magazine writing (The New Yorker is the worst offender I encounter) where the author spends so much time building without revealing the main point that I often give up because I'm seven pages in and have no idea what I'm reading about.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 7:40 AM on July 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Later, I will post a hilarious and insightful comment.
posted by unSane at 7:54 AM on July 23, 2011 [11 favorites]


What I'm going to do with this comment is attempt a bit of a pastiche of the style of writing under discussion. Now I'm not at all trying to engage with the article on any substantive level, I won't consider questions of whether or not this is a good or serious criticism, you'll notice that i haven't even mentioned the author of the piece, Geoff Dyer. What I'm attempting is more of a gently humorous re-enactment of the academic self-referentialism run mad that Dyer describes. Then I'll conclude with a bit of a non sequitur on how excited I am that Geoff Dyer apparently has a new column at the New York Times. In summary, I have written a comment.
posted by villanelles at dawn at 7:56 AM on July 23, 2011 [26 favorites]


This the proper way to right. Perhaps Fried went overboard.

One time my old boss had me write a motion for him because he was rushed on something else. I included my trademark seriatum topic sentence: "X is entitled to Y because of (1) blah blah; (2) blah blah; (3) blah blah; and (4), blah blah.

We knew we were going to lose. But I was amazed to see the judge's response. "X argues he iis entitled to Y because of (1) blah blah; (2) blah blah; (3) blah blah; and (4), blah blah." She put it down word for word. I was delighted. I had fully communicated my points to the judge.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:00 AM on July 23, 2011


Reminds me of Mark Twain's devastating and hilarious dissection of James Fennimore Cooper's prose style, still worth its weight in gold today.
posted by unSane at 8:06 AM on July 23, 2011 [6 favorites]


Spoiler alert.
posted by clvrmnky at 8:06 AM on July 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


Years ago, when I went to IBM schools, the instructors had this format:
-Tell them what you're going to tell them
-Tell it to them
-Tell them what you told them

At first, this seemed like a good idea, especially for instruction, but after a while it gets annoying. Now I see this in meetings and all kind of places. I think it's probably a cornerstone of somebody's communication theory.

At least I don't find it as annoying as an author saying 'As we learned earlier...' , meaning- 'I flatly stated earlier...'.
posted by MtDewd at 8:07 AM on July 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


An introduction should briefly acquaint an audience to a potentially unfamiliar subject.

This is completely different from merely announcing what is to follow.

Introductions serve a purpose. Announcements do not.
posted by Sys Rq at 8:19 AM on July 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wow. Geoff Dyer finds someone else's prose style self-congratulatory?
posted by RogerB at 8:22 AM on July 23, 2011


In my post I will argue that Geoff Dyer is a charming, clever and funny writer, and will conclude by thanking shivohum for posting this.
posted by Flashman at 8:28 AM on July 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Charming, clever, funny and profoundly mean!!

I'm going to say that I wonder if Fried poisoned his dog or slept with his partner.
posted by Maias at 8:30 AM on July 23, 2011


Eh, this kind of "signposting" can be tiring and certainly isn't stylistically pretty, but it has its value in long-form argumentative writing, where your introduction provides (among other things) a brief sketch of the essay/chapter/book's structure. Something like: "I'm going to start with an analysis of case X, then I'm going to review recent scholarship on the issue Y as it relates to X, and then I'm going to make make some new claims / introduce new concepts." That's certainly useful when you're another scholar and you need to acquaint yourself with the argument quickly and efficiently. If every paragraph is "I'm going to…" and "I just did…", that gets a bit old.
posted by LMGM at 8:36 AM on July 23, 2011 [5 favorites]


I'm going to say that I wonder if Fried poisoned his dog or slept with his partner.

I would like to argue that it's more likely, rather, that Dyer, who has spent a career outside the academy but wants to be thought of as a serious thinker rather than just a clever and stylish writer, is working out his animus against academia in general here. In conclusion, I would claim that Fried is really just serving as a whipping-boy for the academic humanities here, someone on whom Dyer can work out his sheer rage that good scholars are often bad writers and that his abundance of cleverness does not, by itself, certify him as an intellectual.
posted by RogerB at 8:39 AM on July 23, 2011 [7 favorites]


I heart Geoff Dyer.
posted by jcruelty at 8:43 AM on July 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


There's a reason academic writing works this way. It's because, to the greatest extent possible, we want to make it perfectly clear what assertions we are making and why, so that others can assess their truth and their level of justification. The prose in fiction, or in feature writing, has a different goal -- to convey ideas and impression in a very compact, graceful way, using connotation and insinuation. Novels are not arguments nor should they be. But academic books often want to be, and with good reason.
posted by escabeche at 8:45 AM on July 23, 2011 [14 favorites]


There's a reason academic writing works this way. It's because, to the greatest extent possible, we want to make it perfectly clear what assertions we are making and why, so that others can assess their truth and their level of justification.

Have you ever read Derrida?
posted by unSane at 8:50 AM on July 23, 2011 [8 favorites]


This is the comment I am writing.
posted by doctor_negative at 8:57 AM on July 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


At school I was never really able to convert anyone to my way of pronouncing his name as the feminine singular of Doritos.
posted by villanelles at dawn at 8:57 AM on July 23, 2011 [6 favorites]


You know, sometimes, when you have to get something done but you just can't be bothered so instead of giving it a real go you start coming up with reasons as to why you can't or shouldn't do it?.. yeah.
posted by CheesesOfNazareth at 8:57 AM on July 23, 2011


This is the title of my story, which is also found several times in the story itself.
posted by dismas at 9:00 AM on July 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


"Signposting" is something I struggled with a lot in graduate school, partly because I felt that it made my writing boring. I often wrote my essays as though they were almost mystery stories. I'd begin with an illustrative anecdote, but I'd usually get more interested in how "ISN'T THIS COOL!" the anecdote was and it'd take me ten pages out of forty to actually get to the meat of my argument. It often went to excess, but I felt defensive about changing things. I just thought these kinds of things were more interesting to read: I'd build up this story, and then at the end, pull the rug out and unleash my (in my own mind) brilliant argument that would reveal the true meaning of what I'd been telling the reader for the last few pages. "You're wondering why I'm telling you all this. Well, guess what? HERE'S THE MIND-BLOWING REASON!" Or at least that is what it was in my head.

Thinking about it, I can see why it doesn't work, and why my professors (or at least one of them) pushed me hard to break out of that model. If you are reading for information, and you want the argument, that gets frustrating pretty fast. Readers of academic essays don't often want a great story. They want the information. They want to know where it's all going so they can evaluate, quickly, whether or not the essay is worth their time. So as much as I think think that this "mystery story" structure is more fun to read and write, for somebody who wants the information, it isn't particularly effective.

Of course, if I'm being honest, I probably really do it because growing up I wanted to write fiction and found, like so many grad students who study literature, that they're better at writing essays than novels. This is as close as I'll probably get to writing decent fiction.
posted by synecdoche at 9:01 AM on July 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


damnit how did i fuck up the title to that
posted by dismas at 9:02 AM on July 23, 2011


I try to convince every student I come across to include this kind of signposting in their thesis. Since the committee is only going to skip through the first few pages anyway, it is of vital importance to provide them with enough information to be able to convincingly fake having read the entire thesis during the defense.
posted by Dr Dracator at 9:03 AM on July 23, 2011 [7 favorites]


Dyer is using his first column to assure his audience that he isn't one of those workaday academic or business types, who write functional prose, but that he is an elite literary flaneur. It's a cheap shot. "Signposting" and a lot of other plodding conventions of academic, business and legal writing arose to meet the needs of communications in fields where not everyone is a brilliant or even good writer, where audiences may be distracted, hostile, or difficult to reach.

Academics and business writers have completely different political and informational agendas than someone in Dyer's position, and need -- or feel they need -- to send out a particular set of signals, all of them quite different from the kind of snooty signalling Dyer feels he needs to do.

To my mind, he blows it when he gratuitously goes after what he calls the "nutty, fictional, navel-gazing monologues of Nicholson Baker." I mean, "navel-gazing" is a vulgar cliche to begin with, and the kind of thing you read in second-rate book reviews, and Dyer isn't worthy of even cleaning the lint out of Nicholson Baker's (probably cruddy with dried sperm) belly button. I look forward to skipping Dyer's future columns in the Book Review, even as I skip the page-after-page of what appear to be some kind of Best Seller lists that now clutter its back portions.
posted by Faze at 9:32 AM on July 23, 2011 [5 favorites]


I try to convince every student I come across to include this kind of signposting in their thesis. Since the committee is only going to skip through the first few pages anyway, it is of vital importance to provide them with enough information to be able to convincingly fake having read the entire thesis during the defense.

Years ago, in grad school, I had a library assistantship and I worked a reference desk. I would give kids the 5 minutes of instruction on paper writing that they never had. I got incredible writing teachers in high school because I lived in a well-to-do-district with amazing teachers when I was a kid. I was shocked to find that a lot of other people didn't.

Signpost writing is good writing. It is writing on a professional level that gets paid for because it does its job--to inform. You may not feel like you had fun every minute, but you learned.

alas its all about the style and nothing about the substance these days.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:35 AM on July 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


Of course you could argue that all this signposting is a key element of how to write a book that can be read exceedingly quickly (from a link discussed previously on AskMe).

I agree that continual signposting can be maddening (and Fried could just be a terrible writer padding out his book), but it's also possible that Dyer isn't allowing for the very different reading models that exist in academia or other settings where you have to process a lot of information in a small amount of time.

(On preview: what Faze, Ironmouth, and Dr Dracator said, too.)
posted by col_pogo at 9:41 AM on July 23, 2011


I work with some people who, I think, try to do this in conversation. So, we lay out the terms of what we are going to talk about, then they make their point and I make mine (or the other way around), and maybe we have a few more iterations. Then they summarize what they said, which makes me do the same. This means that we restart the discussion, and we go through it again. Then the summaries start. This continues, usually with me edging toward the door, until I flee to another appointment. It's exhausting, and I keep looking for a way to short-circuit the process, but it's not easy.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:48 AM on July 23, 2011


I went to a talk once that I was really excited about during the talk, because the speaker kept introducing what she was going to talk about and it sounded like interesting stuff and I wanted to see where she was going with it. And then the talk ended. And I was like, "uh, but where was the talk?"

As other comments have said, giving an overview of the structure of an academic document (book, thesis, talk, etc.) is useful and important when your goal involves conveying complex information. There's a reason it's referred to as an introduction, however - you do eventually have to get to the substance. So I disagree with everyone who thinks that this is a universally useless idea, but I also sympathize, because I, too, have seen/heard examples where it is misused, and the author/speaker never gets past the introduction.

In summary:P, good writing is important in all contexts, though different writing styles are better suited to different contexts. I think it would be more useful to promote good writing in all styles and contexts, than to malign a particular style even if it may be more frequently employed in examples of bad writing.
posted by eviemath at 9:53 AM on July 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


If you don't like signposting, then check out academic writing where the author has consciously refused to follow that strategy. Sometimes it works, but more often, it's just awful. "Failed poet" is a pungent stench.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:53 AM on July 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


I keep looking for a way to short-circuit the process

You can use the simple expedient of looking over the other person's shoulder at someone else across the room, announcing "We meet again, Dimitri--but this time, I won't be such easy prey!", then shooting out a nearby window and parachuting out it to the street.

It also works for job interviews.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 9:55 AM on July 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


I this comment I'd like to try and talk about this Dyer article even though when I tried getting through it last night it put me to sleep (for real), and not having read the full column itself I won't have much to say other than, I learned from an episode of Doc Martin that scientific papers are structured as:

1.) Tell them what your going to tell them.
2.) Tell them
3.) Tell them what you just told them.

And I guess that applies to academy in general, and must be the reason why as one who majored in Philosophy where every other sentence has the above structure actually, I was frequently in a state of barely containable rage and melancholy, and I imagine that applies to most of those who "Major in Philosophy." I nearly gave up on reading anything.

So here's the thing. Follow that above structure, but when you revise, remove parts one and parts two.

Thank you.

So what I just told you there is....blah blah blah....


*Pulls out straight razor and proceeds to fill warm bath.....*

posted by Skygazer at 10:03 AM on July 23, 2011


remove parts one and parts two three

REMOVE PARTS ONE AN THREE!! THREE!! THREE, DAMMIT!
posted by Skygazer at 10:05 AM on July 23, 2011


Oh, and one other thing. never read the forward to any book, until you've read the book. Ever.

Forwards are bullshit. They should be tacked on at the end as commentary or analysis or critique or whatevery...
posted by Skygazer at 10:07 AM on July 23, 2011


This is the kind of formatting that has ruined TV documentaries. Previously, you'd have an intro, a main thesis, and a conclusion, perhaps with some ad breaks at apposite points if it wasn't on the BBC. Now it goes like this:

1.
Two-minute montage of unnamed talking heads saying pertinent stuff about subject, all of which are excerpts of the interviews they will give throughout the course of the hour (at which point they'll get a caption naming them).
OR:
One or two minute extended piece on a particular aspect of the doc subject.
Before 2.
Actual introduction.
3.
Pre-ad break summary of what we've had so far, plus a teaser of what's to come next.

AD BREAK

4.
Recap of what we saw in the first part, plus what we're going to see now.
5.
What we're seeing now.
6.
Recap of what we saw in the first part plus what we just saw plus what we'll see next.

AD BREAK

7.
Recap of recaps plus more trailer for something that's all of 30 seconds in the future.
8.
What was the future 30 seconds ago but is now the present.
9.
What was once the future and was then the present but is now the past, even if only by 30 seconds, plus what will be the future when we're in the future ... i.e. when we're past the ...

AD BREAK

10.
What we learned at the start and then in the middle and then the recent past, plus what was the future future but is now just the future.
11.
The future's last chance before the recap at the end.
12.
Recap [with Question; sub set for historico-documentary questions titled things like DID THE DINOSAURS KILL HITLER (which we have spent 55 mins telling you is totally the case dude, in spite of negligible evidence)? Answer: Um, no.]
13.
CREDITS, squashed into a corner so you can be told by a continuity announcer how great the programme you just watched, plus how awesome the programme on next is going to be, right?
posted by Len at 10:11 AM on July 23, 2011 [13 favorites]


-Tell them what you're going to tell them
-Tell it to them
-Tell them what you told them


When I was working for a pre-Limbaugh talk show host in the '70s, those were his specific rules on how to fill a 4-hour timeslot when you're not getting any calls.
posted by oneswellfoop at 10:12 AM on July 23, 2011


Len said it better than I could, for all TV these days:

"PREVIOUSLY ON 'LOST'...

BUT I'M STILL LOST!
posted by oneswellfoop at 10:19 AM on July 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


"NEXT ON 'LOST'...


Oneswellfoop...do your thing.
posted by Skygazer at 10:26 AM on July 23, 2011


This the proper way to right.

Perfection.

Sir, I salute you.
posted by mhoye at 10:46 AM on July 23, 2011


I have some sympathy with Dyer, here. To carry the metaphor, when you're on a journey, there are regular unobtrusive mile markers, and large signs preceding junctions. But for the most part there's, you know, scenery to enjoy and ponder. If you have a signpost every ten feet, you block off the actual thing your meant to experience; the substance is lost in the signal.
posted by Diablevert at 11:01 AM on July 23, 2011


Interestingly, when kids are in grade school, they are often told that one should avoid the first person in objective, academic-style writing.

This type of signposting, as Dyer notes, is on some level used in order to "prevent an authorial personality from intruding on the material being presented" -- even as it uses "I" flamboyantly.

Maybe if academics begin to see this level of signposting as self-absorption, they should go back to sixth grade and drop the first person!
posted by lewedswiver at 11:19 AM on July 23, 2011


Indicating what you're talking about and why is good style.

Talking about indicating what you're talking about and why is not good style.
posted by LogicalDash at 11:37 AM on July 23, 2011


escabeche: "Novels are not arguments nor should they be. But academic books often want to be, and with good reason."

This. Put a more pedestrian way: people read fiction when they have the time to be entertained or emotionally moved, and rhetorical flourish is part of that experience. People read academic works to learn or think, and so they don't have time for you to beat around the bush.
posted by Apropos of Something at 12:00 PM on July 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's interesting...I teach high school English and there are a lot of other English teachers who force signposting on their students. I just left a school where this was an "essay," regardless of genre, subject or purpose:

Introduction: hook+background+thesis
Body paragraphs: topic sentence+concrete detail (i.e. direct quote from article)+commentary+concusion sentence
Conclusion: restate thesis and important details

This method of writing instruction yields 120 identical essays. I wonder if it's something that was introduced in order to "prepare them for college writing"...but somewhere went horribly wrong. To me, the structure can match what I listed above and still be well-reasoned, beautifully written, and interesting. The problem right now is that we care more about the structure than those things.

Reading that article reminded me of all the horrible essays I was forced to read last year...*shudder* I see that signposting has a place and purpose, but given to teachers who are barely competent writers it becomes a trainwreck.
posted by guster4lovers at 12:07 PM on July 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


In my job scoring written essays, we often see this sort of structure, we call it "the Five Point Essay." It is usually obvious that the student (usually high school students) have been coached extensively on this format, which they can execute proficiently, but the content is lacking. Sometimes the essay only has the five points, and no content whatsoever. It's like an outline.

Structure is no substitute for content. Structure can aid content, or it can become a straightjacket. After reading several hundred thousand linear outline structure essays, I am bored to tears. I spent quite a few years in Japanese literature classes and find that my own best essays tend to be in kishotenketsu format. At first I didn't even realize I was doing it. Then I started helping some Japanese exchange students with their college essays. They only knew kishotenketsu and didn't know how to write an outline, or to use things like Pyramid Style. Their papers consistently got poorer grades, the professors insisted the papers were unclear. But the students insisted their points were perfectly clear. I assisted a couple of times, when the grading professor couldn't see the points being made, and misunderstood the typical indirect conclusions.

In English writing, we assume the reader is a damn idiot and needs to have their hand held as we walk from the Intro, through points A B and C, to the conclusion. Any weak link in the chain of logic and we never get to the conclusion. In Asian writing styles like kishotenketsu, the reader is expected to bring his own knowledge to the interpretation of the essay. The topic may be explained (several times) through oblique metaphors, and the essay often ends with an ambiguous conclusion with two different possibilities (although the "correct" one is usually obvious).

And there is the problem, in a nutshell. English essay writing with signposts and obvious structures, is an insult to the reader. It assumes he is unable to find his own analytical interpretation. It is bad writing, for bad readers.
posted by charlie don't surf at 1:42 PM on July 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


It is bad writing, for bad readers.

Sorry Charlie, but you don't write functional prose to punish bad readers. You have to take into account that many of your readers will be "bad", or lazy, or distracted. There's nothing wrong with trying to "idiot-proof" your prose. In functional contexts, the purpose is to convey information, not signal your intellectual superiority.
posted by Faze at 1:54 PM on July 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


Structure is no substitute for content.

Not that alternative structures aren't great in and of themselves, but there's much to be said for structure that so easily lays bare the emptiness of thin content.

In Asian writing styles like kishotenketsu, the reader is expected to bring his own knowledge to the interpretation of the essay. The topic may be explained (several times) through oblique metaphors, and the essay often ends with an ambiguous conclusion with two different possibilities (although the "correct" one is usually obvious).

This sounds great for certain applications, but in other contexts - for example, in law - this would not work at all.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:55 PM on July 23, 2011


Our results also imply the following theorem, whose proof we leave as an amusing exercise for the reader.
posted by erniepan at 3:40 PM on July 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't think you quite understood, Sticherbeast. These college students coming from Japan are taught to write in kishotenketsu format from the time they are children. They don't know anything else. I assure you this format is used in everything, from school essays to legal filings. These Japanese students thought our outline structure was incomprehensible. It was difficult to get them to understand the format.
posted by charlie don't surf at 3:41 PM on July 23, 2011


I don't think you quite understood, Sticherbeast. These college students coming from Japan are taught to write in kishotenketsu format from the time they are children. They don't know anything else. I assure you this format is used in everything, from school essays to legal filings. These Japanese students thought our outline structure was incomprehensible. It was difficult to get them to understand the format.

I understand that, just as I also understood how their Western professors had found them to be equally difficult to understand.

What I meant was, appropriating the kishotenketsu format would be great for some applications, especially in some disciplines, but it would not work for an appellate brief out here, just as a Western-structure brief would not work over in Japan. The Japanese and American legal systems are different. In addition to the relatively superficial fact that a seemingly nontraditional format would turn off a judge (or court attorney), the manner in which a legal argument is made in the US, in our precedent-heavy common law legal system, probably wouldn't work in the kishotenketsu format, especially since appeals are expected to be orderly (in a specific way) and self-contained as far as their references are concerned. Ambiguity or assumption would be a fatal flaw in an American brief.

I can't speak for the details of the Japanese legal system, but I am confident that that culture has similarly developed its own effective way of structuring its legal arguments.
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:03 PM on July 23, 2011


In this post I will demonstrate that I really want to favorite Len's comment five thousand times.
posted by cyndigo at 6:26 PM on July 23, 2011


Speaking from agonized experience, if Fried were to try taking the signposts out, he would promptly be told to put them back in.
posted by thomas j wise at 6:34 PM on July 23, 2011


Signpost writing is good writing. It is writing on a professional level that gets paid for because it does its job--to inform. You may not feel like you had fun every minute, but you learned.

But why does that make it good writing? Written communication serves a lot more purposes than generically conveying information. Or to put it another way, "information" is an incredibly vague term. Types of legal writing are sort of an exception, because there the priority is on facts and avoiding ambiguity, but there's more to writing than communicating facts. Why can't the job of writing be to inspire? To promote creativity? To create controversy? To share a feeling? Or any number of other things...

Ultimately, writing, and all communication I suppose, is about saying "look, I've got these symbols and concepts in my head and they are linked together in some way that represents something about a world we can understand. I'm going to translate all that into some kind of shared set of symbols and transmit them to you in the hope that you'll wind up with a similar bunch of symbols and relationships in your head by the time I'm done." (We're ignoring the great linguistic/cognitive science debate here as to language's role in shaping and representing our thoughts, which is a massively unsettled question.)

Within that pattern, there's no particular reason the information being communicated has to be the barebones facts only, and doing so may result in an incredibly incomplete message. The fact of what it feels like to, say, lose a loved one is not adequately communicated by "tears came out of his eye sockets, and he would wipe them with tissues. He spent more time sitting alone than engaging in the activities he typically performed."

Beyond that, sometimes the best way to get someone to learn something is to excite them about the topic or to lead them to develop their own conclusions. In a world filled with ideas and noise, getting people to care about what you have to say is often the most important and difficult tasks in communication. Boring the reader to death with over-signposted academic drivel is pretty much the worst way to actually communicate information, because you can't communicate anything if no one is paying attention.
posted by zachlipton at 11:59 PM on July 23, 2011


"Signposts" are the human-readable form of what web designers and the programmers who take care of them like to call "metadata".

Metadata is great. It's all over the webpage you're looking at right now. Metadata said to draw three columns but make the middle one really wide, put the comment thread there, render it in a sans-serif font, and make it a bit smaller and darker for the attributions.

You don't have to actually read the metadata--or rather, you "read" it by observing the typographical effects I just described. You can in fact see that stuff. You know it means there's some content in the left and right margins but it's not very important compared to the comment thread, and there's some content in the attributions that's more important than the margins but less than the other stuff in the middle.

It's very important to have this stuff. If you've been around the web long enough, you may have had the experience of opening a web page in a browser that doesn't understand the markup, or maybe the web designer didn't understand it I don't know, and getting big blank boxes everywhere, or text overlapping images, or whatever.

Reading a comment like mine on top of every webpage, describing the intended formatting, might be useful if you're the web designer who's supposed to fix the webpage up into something really presentable. But, well, normally when designers do that, they do it in comments, which aren't displayed in the normal view of a web browser.

"Signposts" in the introductions, forewords, abstracts, conclusions, and appendices of a human-readable text are a kind of metadata that we can't do without. We don't have a nice, automated way of communicating this stuff, as for HTML markup and friends; people are trying to develop such technology, of course, but for now we need the longhand, and even if we do get to the point where every academic journal comes with machine-parseable headers that let your computer show you just the information you need, we'll still need introductions and so forth to let the designers know how to write those headers.

But even now, we don't need this stuff in the middle of the text. You're supposed to tell them what you have to say, and then say it, and then tell them what you said. Mixing the headers and footers in with the main content looks and feels a lot like broken markup.
posted by LogicalDash at 8:07 AM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Abstract
This comment will agree with the above comment.

Comment
I find the analogy in the previous comment by LogicalDash enlightening.

Summary
I hardly think a summary is necessary.

Post Script
Excessive metadata or signposts can be irritating in any format.

Mood: more affable than the sarcasm might lead you to believe.
Now Playing: a dog barking.

posted by pmcp at 8:30 AM on July 24, 2011


Too lazy; didn't read.
posted by flabdablet at 3:00 AM on July 25, 2011


Ceci n'est pas une self-referential comment.
posted by Chrysostom at 11:42 AM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is true.
posted by flabdablet at 4:22 PM on July 25, 2011


Abstract: In this comment I'll describe a common problem in academic writing, and then suggest a way in which signposting helps to alleviate that problem.

Too often when I'm reading an academic paper of some kind, I get to thinking "What you're saying seems sensible and correct, but why are you saying this? What's the relevance to anything?" Then, several pages later, we eventually circle back to revisit the previous discussion and tie it all together, and finally the relevance of that earlier stuff becomes apparent. This is a style of writing that I very much dislike. Or more often, it's not a style at all -- it's just (so it seems) a result of the author putting down his ideas in the order that they occur to him, and then not re-drafting and rearranging to make the paper flow better.

That's one reason why signposting is so important. If you say in advance that "first I'll do X and then I'll go on to explain Y", you give the reader a sense of where we are in the discussion at any given time, and how each part contributes to getting to the destination. Also -- and equally valuable -- it forces the writer to consider the overall structure of the article. This often reveals ways in which it can be re-arranged to make the relation between the different components more natural, and so the argument itself more comprehensible and convincing.
posted by logopetria at 11:15 AM on July 27, 2011


Oh, and thanks unSane for the Twain link. The phrase "an airy, complacent, monkey-with-a-parasol gait" is the best thing I've read all month!
posted by logopetria at 11:18 AM on July 27, 2011


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