The most common signpost is an initial sentence that indicates both the topic and the general plan of treating it. For instance, the scientist J. B. S. Haldane organizes a five-paragraph section of a long essay like this:
Science impinges upon ethics in at least five different ways. In the first place ... Secondly . .. Thirdly ... Fourthly . .. Fifthly ...
Sequence may be signaled by actual numbers or usually enclosed in than by words like first, second, in the first place, and so on. The poet W. B. Yeats explains why he believes in magic:
I believe in the practice and philosophy of what we have agreed to call magic, in what t must call the evocation of spirits, though I do not know what they are, in the power of creating magical illusions, in the visions of truth in the depths of the mind when the eyes are closed; and I believe in three doctrines, which have, as I think, been handed down from early times, and been the foundation of nearly all magical practices. These doctrines are—
1. That the borders of our mind are ever shifting, and that many minds can flow into one another, and create or reveal a single mind, a single energy.
2. That the borders of our memories are as shifting, and that our memories are a part of one great memory, the memory of Nature herself.
3. That this great mind and great memory can be evoked by symbols.
Numbers, however, and number words like first, second, third, must be handled cautiously. Overused, they confuse readers, losing them in a labyrinth of (l)s and (2)s and (a)s and (b)s.
Rather than using numbers, it is better, if possible, to set up an analysis by employing key terms. These identify the major points and can be repeated at the beginning of the appropriate paragraph or section. For example, the television critic Edith Efron, discussing soap operas, writes:
Almost all dramatic tension and moral conflict emerge from three basic sources: mating, marriage and babies.
She begins the next paragraph by picking up the key word "mating":
The mating process is the cornerstone of the tri-value system.
And the following paragraph she opens by using the loose synonym "domesticity" to link "marriage and babies":
If domesticity is a marital "good," aversion to it is a serious evil.
Signposts demand consistency. Once you begin using them you must carry through. Some writers make the mistake of starting off with something like this:
There were three reasons why the pact was not satisfactory. First.
But then they fail to introduce the next two reasons with the obligatory second or third (or secondly, finally). The lack of signals may confuse readers who fail to recognize when the writer passes from one reason to another.
Aside from setting up a group of paragraphs, signposts may also anticipate future sections of an essay or make clear what will not be treated. Few subjects divide neatly into watertight compartments. As you develop one point, you touch upon another that you do not plan to discuss fully until later or perhaps not to discuss at all. When this happens you may wish to give a warning.
Signposts may also point backward, reminding readers of something treated earlier which bears upon the current topic. Thus a writer may say "(See page 8)," or "As we saw in Chapter 7____"
The signposts we have looked at are is, they are actually a part of the writer's text. There are also extrinsic signposts, ones that stand outside the actual discussion yet clue readers to its organization. An outline or a table of contents is such an extrinsic signal. So are chapter titles, subtitles of sections, running heads at the top of each page.
Typography and design convey other extrinsic indications of organization: the indentation of paragraph beginnings and of quotations, the extra spacing between lines to signal a new major section, and occasionally the numerals (usually Roman) centered above the division of an essay. Philosophical and scientific writers sometimes use a more elaborate system, beginning each paragraph with a two-part number, the first digit to designate the chapter, the second the paragraph.
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