Will My Reader Know What’s Important? Mapping and Signposting as Tools to Navigate Between Claims

Every time a writer proposes a debatable interpretation of facts, they are making a claim. Ultimately, this means that every academic article and book is filled with a great many interrelated claims, and this in turn leads to one of the most common problems in academic writing: texts that leave readers confused about the precise relationship between the various claims an author is making. In order for a reader to understand a piece of writing, they must be able to tell the difference between 1) an article’s guiding, or overarching claim and subordinate claims; and 2) assertions that support the guiding claim and “side-comments,” observations that are interesting but tangential.  Indeed, in the early stages of drafting, writers are often unclear about the precise relationship between their claims. In order to clarify the Hierarchy of your Argument, we suggest you try this mapping and signposting strategy, which is a bit like reverse outlining. But rather than laying out the specific mechanics and Structure of paragraphs and sections as in a reverse outline, you lay out the claims you are making 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, as well as which claims are central and which are incidental stops.

A simple mapping exercise follows:

Step 1: 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.)

Step 2: In a separate document or on a sheet of paper, list the claims you have made.

Step 3: 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.

Step 4: Depending on the intricacy of your project (for example, dissertations tend to be more intricate that seminar papers), you might consider dividing your secondary claims (more intricate projects—like dissertations—tend to have more intricate secondary claims). Examples of phrases that indicate secondary claims are listed below. For a more detailed definition, follow the link to our glossary of terms.

  • Subordinate claims: “As a consequence…” “It follows, then…” “Incidentally, this suggests…”
  • Complementary claims: “On a related note…” “It also merits mention…” “It is worth noting…”
  • Contravening claims: “The reader may object that… I contend, however…”
  • Summative claims: “To restate the argument to this point…” “So far, I have established…” “In sum…”

Step 4: 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 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 signposting for the reader. Consult your argument as you review each paragraph and make sure you include clear signposting that will help your reader understand how each step of your analysis fits into the broader hierarchy of your argument. (You will find examples of signposting language above in the list of the four types of secondary claims.)

If you find the tactile work of mapping a particularly useful way to think through the writing process, stop by these entries, which employ similarly “out of the box” problem solving: “Disorganized first draft? Color-coding as a tool to reorganize and restructure” and “Lost Your Work’s Narrative: Reverse Outlining and Storyboarding as a Method of Reordering Your Work’s Structure.”

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