Here’s a comment about writing I heartily agree with: “Good writing takes advantage of a reader’s expectations of where to go next.” It’s from page 39 of Steven Pinker’s book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.
Pinker calls this practice signposting – using clue words to help readers navigate what you’ve written. Here are some words and phrases you can use: but, for example, therefore, in addition, furthermore, on the other hand, however, and nevertheless.
Pinker’s point is an important one. We can’t see our readers, so it’s easy to forget about them. When we’re writing, we’re focused on what we’re doing – selecting words, choosing ideas, finding examples, organizing sentences and paragraphs. I call that writing a first draft.
The problem is that many writers stop with that first draft: “I’m finished!” I used to work in a college learning lab. Again and again I saw students print an assignment and hurry over to the tutoring desk. They skipped the important second step: Sitting down to reread their work and look for ways to make it better.
If you think about “signposting,” you’re more likely to insert transition words that will help readers find their way.
Notice that the sentence below has no signpost. Are the psychologists giving good advice? There’s no way to tell:
Many psychologists tell their clients that they are choosing to be depressed, anxious, angry, or sad.
This version of the same information has a clear signpost: the writer disagrees with what the psychologists are doing.
Telling clients that they are choosing to be depressed, anxious, angry, or sad – as many psychologists do – isn’t helpful.