Even when one crafts a logical first draft with a clearly stated Argument, carefully delineated sections, and a sense of Hierarchy, readers can still feel lost. If the author does not tell the reader what they need to remember from section to section, what analysis from a previous paragraph must be recalled now, or how two sections relate, even the best of first drafts will not land with a punch. Most importantly, the first sentences of paragraphs that begin to sections or steps in your analysis must convey that that section or step’s “location” with respect to the larger analysis being conducted. We put “location” in quotes here to distinguish between a paragraph’s literal location in an essay’s structure and it’s figurative location in that essay’s hierarchy of claims and concepts. Remember, an essay’s Structure doesn’t always line up with its ultimate hierarchy of claims and concepts. For example, a smaller point may lead to a bigger and more overarching one, yet a reader may not know the second step is actually the bigger idea unless you make that very clear. In order to help readers “locate” a paragraph’s claim within your conceptual and analytical hierarchy, you need to craft opening sentences that function as a special kind of “signpost.” This revision strategy helps you identify the “location” of the key points of your text and determine where to insert the appropriate signposts.
Step 1: First, you’ll need to reverse outline your essay and restructure the argument so that you know where your key points are located in your text. Generally, a reverse outline allows you (the writer) to place yourself in the reader’s position and assess the current Structure of your argument, determining the location of gaps, buried ideas, and overall clarity. Most important for this exercise, reverse outlining will help you discern the points of demarcation between distinct sections or “steps” and locate the key points of your argument. Mark them so that you can return to them later.
Step 2: Now that you have your reverse outline. Review it carefully and take note of the places where you see a shift in purpose between one paragraph and the next. What is the relationship between these two steps? Does the one follow from the other? Are you moving from a tight focus on one aspect of your argment to a “big picture” paragraph that’s returning to your overarching claim? Whatever the case may be, write down a note that captures your understanding of who the new step relates to both the previous step and your overarching argument.
Step 3: Focusing on the paragraphs where you identified a shift in purpose, draft new topic sentences that better help your reader understand the hierarchical relationship between the part and the whole.
Signposting is also, very often, a structural issue. The entries “Do Your Topic Sentences and Paragraphs Align: Thinking Through the Vacuum” and “Does each topic sentence state the purpose of that paragraph? Check out this signaling-oriented topic sentence check” offer alternate methods to help align your topic sentences and the work you do in your paragraphs.
In another entry, “Does Each Topic Sentence State the Purpose of That Paragraph? Check Topic Sentences for Signaling,” we consider a similar concern: the importance of reviewing the topic sentence of a paragraph with an eye toward their role in communicating the argumentative/analytical purpose of each paragraph.