RS__Hierarchy__Will my reader know what’s important? Mapping and signposting as tools to navigate between claims.

This entry addresses two basic strategies to clarify the hierarchy of your argument both to yourself and the reader: mapping and signposting. The mapping strategy described here is a bit like reverse outlining, but rather than laying out the specific mechanics and structure of paragraphs and sections, you lay out the claims you make and how they relate to one another. This will help indicate where and what kind of signposting language may be helpful to the reader.

First, let’s define our terms. Mapping concerns the internal geography of the argument, and the route you take to lay it out most clearly. Mapping is primarily for your benefit. You are the cartographer of your own project, and you can change the landscape at will. Signposting, meanwhile, guides the reader along the route you have mapped, indicating to them where to read closely, where to skim, which claims are central and which are incidental stops.

A simple mapping exercise is as follows. First, read through your draft, and mark every place where you make a claim. (If you’re writing in the sciences, this is often the work you will do in your introduction and discussion sections.) Second, in a separate document or on a sheet of paper, list the claims you have made. Third, separate the claims into two broad categories: primary claims, which are essential for the reader to understand your argument, and secondary claims, which support them.

Secondary claims may be further divided into a number of categories, depending on their relationship to a primary claim. Examples of simple signposting phrases are listed under each:

  • Subordinate claims logically follow, or otherwise derive from, the primary claim. These are secondary claims that your primary claim entails as a matter of course. These may be introduced as component parts or notable consequences of your core argument.
    • “As a consequence…” “It follows, then…” “Incidentally, this suggests…”
  • Complementary claims support the primary claim without necessarily following from it. Their secondary emphasis comes not from their logical subordination to the primary claim, but from your authorial decision about the scope of the project. In other words, these are claims that support your primary claim, but are not the focus of your argument.
    • “On a related note…” “It also merits mention…” “It is worth noting…”
  • Contravening claims complicate the primary claim. They may appear superficially opposed to your argument, but when interrogated add nuance or supportive detail. These may be introduced as anticipated reader objections. In the sciences, we often address claims of this kind in our discussion and/or conclusions when addressing the limitations of our studies or pointing to future research projects.
    • “The reader may object that… I contend, however…”
  • Summative claims restate the preceding claims of a section in a condensed way. These are not entirely new claims, but rather restatements of already established claims in a new, synthesized way. These may be introduced in the closing paragraphs of a section, or in the conclusion to an article or chapter.
    • “To restate the argument to this point…” “So far, I have established…” “In sum…”

Once you have a map of discrete claims, their significance to your argument, and their relationships to one another, read through your draft again with the following questions in mind:

  1. Where is each claim in the paper? (Are any simply not in there?)
  2. Where are the claims in relationship to each other? (Does the ordering make sense?)
  3. What language do you use to indicate which claims are primary vs. secondary? (Is signposting language absent where it might be helpful?)

Answering these questions will help you make informed revision choices  that improve your sign-posting for the reader. Consult your argument as you review each paragraph and make sure you include clear sign-posting that will help your reader understand how each step of your analysis fits into the broader hierarchy of your argument. Note: you will find examples of sign-posting language above in the list of the four types of secondary claims.

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