Where to Go Pinker

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.Crossroad signpost saying this way, that way, the other way


4 thoughts on “Where to Go Pinker

  1. AvatarDarrell Turner

    Jean, I am a little confused about the two sentences you gave to show the importance of signposting. The first one is an apparently factual description of what many psychologists tell their clients, while the second one expresses the writer’s disagreement. However, if the first one was written as part of an information essay on different approaches used by psychologists, it would be appropriate for it to be objective without indicating the writer’s opinion

    The words and phrases you give as examples of signposting are what I and other writing teachers call signal words. They provide coherence in an essay and help the reader to see the relationships between different ideas.

  2. Avatarballroomdancer Post author

    Hi, Darrell – you’re right. My sentence is out of context, and I probably didn’t do a good job of explaining what I was trying to say.
    I dislike purely informative papers, and I never assigned them when I was teaching. Even if a student is just listing categories, I think there should be some critical thinking.
    In an informative paper about psychological approaches to therapy, I’d at least like to see a statement that ineffective and illegal approaches were omitted.
    I often read books and articles that present a chunk of information with no attitude, and it drives me crazy. Let me know where you’re taking me! Please!

  3. AvatarElizabeth Fike

    Excellent article, Jean! Depending on how much time I have, I often only take the quiz. Today I had extra time, so I read everything. You’re making me a better writer on the “Houzz Rose Forum”, and I thought I’d jump in here to thank you. I’m still reading along, even though I don’t often comment. Thanks, and keep up the VERY helpful work. Lisa

  4. Avatarballroomdancer Post author

    Hi, Elizabeth – thanks so much! You made my day. I have a lot of fun making up the quizzes, and it’s great to hear that they’re helpful. And I’m glad you enjoyed today’s post!

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