Oakes

Signposting

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I was reading the style guidelines for Axiomatic Magazine (bottom of this page) where they give this Ayn Rand quote:

“Do not let your outline show in your article. Do not let the reader in on the mechanics of what you are doing. Always let him in on the content, of course, but not on the scaffolding. The mistake here takes the following form. As you finish a sequence, you write, for instance, ‘So much for aspect A, now we will discuss aspect B.’ That is the scaffolding, and you should remove it. These are directions written for yourself; they are what you put in an outline. Your outline indicates that you must cover Point 1, then Point 2, etc., but in the actual writing, if the structure of your article is logical, you need not announce that you have finished Point 1.” Art of Nonfiction, 90.

I didn't know there was a word for it, but now I can honestly say: I am a signposting maniac. I wish others did it, too. Too often, I find long opinion articles to be so rich with content that although I can understand each point, I can't wrap my mind around it as one integrated whole.

Most of the time, I end up making my own outline, which usually helps, though I find myself wondering whether I integrated the thoughts incorrectly. So this makes me want to peek at the outline they made.

I can see how it could bore the readers, but it doesn't bore me. Not when my goal is to gain a serious grasp of new concepts, rather than casually read someone's opinion. Is signposting really a sin, even when you're writing for the former case?

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In technical writing for academia, in my experience at least, it is pretty standard and expected that one signpost heavily. That is, that you tell them what you're going to tell them before you tell them. This might be a consequence of the fact that the academic culture has shifted more towards skimming than engaging in thorough reading, and this might be a consequence of the sheer explosion of journals and publications. Either way, I think the above guideline might be a matter of style more than anything. I'll have to think about it further.

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I hunger for signposts when I am reading, especially if it is difficult material. When I read I make marginal notes as "road signs" (my term). For example, if the author says he has "several reasons" for his stance, then I write in the margin: "Reason 1 ... Reason 2 ..." and so forth as he discusses them.

When I write anything long or involved, I like to insert road signs, especially if clarity is more important than "flow." That was often true, I found, in technical writing. It was also often true in marketing communications writing -- for example, where you are trying to show the reader that there are many benefits to buying this new oscilloscope. Minimalist scaffolding is the equivalent of ticking off points on your fingers when you are talking to someone you are trying to persuade.

There are pitfalls here. First (pardon the road sign), keep in mind that Ayn Rand devoted most of her lectures on The Art of Nonfiction to philosophical essay writing, a special type of writing.

Second, some writers rely on signposts and other scaffolding as a substitute for thoroughly essentializing their subject and theme and logically laying out their argument into a structure that the subconscious can handle in a continuous flow. Worse, visible scaffolding, with elaborate signposts, can be a symptom of rationalism, in that all the reader gets is structure but not logical connection of content.

Third, there may be some confusion about the meaning of "scaffolding." I notice in the quoted passage that Ayn Rand seems to be speaking of the "and now Dear Reader, we have come to the second part" style of scaffolding. I would certainly agree that that style is objectionable, but I don't think scaffolding itself is improper in certain kinds of writing.

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So technical writing seems to be the agreed place for them...the thing is, the term "technical" in my context includes a lot of work that some of you would regard as nontechnical, since you've integrated the material before. I kind of wish it would happen on a larger basis than in just academic works.

There are pitfalls here. First (pardon the road sign), keep in mind that Ayn Rand devoted most of her lectures on The Art of Nonfiction to philosophical essay writing, a special type of writing.

It seems like those kinds of essays would need signposting more than any others, due to the abstract nature of the subject.

Worse, visible scaffolding, with elaborate signposts, can be a symptom of rationalism, in that all the reader gets is structure but not logical connection of content.

That's certainly possible, but I usually spot rationalism in my own outlining when I find myself trying to forcibly squeeze ideas into the neat structure I built. At that point, I stop and tell myself rethink the structure itself.

I notice in the quoted passage that Ayn Rand seems to be speaking of the "and now Dear Reader, we have come to the second part" style of scaffolding.

If that's it, then I agree, because I certainly would never say something as elaborate as "So much for aspect A, now we will discuss aspect B."

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I distinctly remember Ayn Rand writing something that seemed to go against the policy of not "announcing that point 1 is finished." Correct me if I'm wrong, but does the following constitute the announcement of a point being completed:

Let me stress this.  The first question is not: What particular code of values should man accept?  The first question is: Does man need values at all--and why? [--beginning of the essay, p. 13]

...

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why man needs a code of ethics. [--9 pages later]

So, it seems to me that she told the reader what she was going to do, did it, then told the reader that she did it. Is this what she's warning against? I ask only because I personally like what she's doing in this essay.

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I distinctly remember Ayn Rand writing something that seemed to go against the policy of not "announcing that point 1 is finished."  Correct me if I'm wrong, but does the following constitute the announcement of a point being completed:
Let me stress this.  The first question is not: What particular code of values should man accept?  The first question is: Does man need values at all--and why? [--beginning of the essay, p. 13]

...

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why man needs a code of ethics. [--9 pages later]

So, it seems to me that she told the reader what she was going to do, did it, then told the reader that she did it. Is this what she's warning against? I ask only because I personally like what she's doing in this essay.

I am not sure how you interpret what you quoted. You seem to see "this ... is why man needs a code of ethics" as the answer to "[d]oes man need values at all -- and why?" I do not see that. In fact, the full quote "9 pages later" is:

What, then, are the right goals for man to pursue? What are the values his survival requires? That is the question to be answered by the science of ethics. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why man needs a code of ethics.

So what you quoted was not the answer to what she originally asked, but rather the "this" was a response to a further question she posed after establishing the answer to the first.

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So she established that yes, man does need values, and only then did she say that "this is why man needs a code of ethics," i.e. to determine which values he needs, considering he does need them?

Earlier on my edition's p. 13, she says:

The first question that has to be answered, as a precondition of any attempt to define, to judge or to accept any specific system of ethics, is: Why does man need a code of values?

I'm unsure if here she's using "code of ethics" and "code of values" interchangeably. But if she is, the first question she embarked on was Why does man need ethics?, and so her later "this" statement on my edition's p. 24 does answer the initial question she embarked on, meaning it does seem like she erected a scaffolding. That is, she began with what seems to be "Why does man need ethics" (p. 13) and ended with "This is why man needs ethics" (p. 22). Do you disagree with this interpretation?

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Do you disagree with this interpretation?

Yes, for the same reason that I highlighted in my prior post. Here is the sequence.

1. Does man need values?

2. She answers that question affirmatively.

3. Later, granted 2, what are the right goals and values to pursue?

4. THAT is the question to be answered by ethics, and THIS is why man needs a particular code of ethics.

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So technical writing seems to be the agreed place for them...the thing is, the term "technical" in my context includes a lot of work that some of you would regard as nontechnical, since you've integrated the material before.

No, by "technical" I -- and I think most other writers in industry -- mean things like:

- A 300-page manual telling you how to repair a diesel truck.

- A 2-page instruction sheet for setting up a particular piece of laboratory equipment.

- A 5-page medical-journal article reporting on the procedures and results of an experiment with nutrition for cancer patients.

Technical writing, in this sense, concentrates on what happened or what a reader should do, in some technological ("technical") or scientific field. Generally speaking, technical writing, in this sense, does not present an argument. That is, the publication (article, manual, instruction sheet) is not an argument (although arguments may appear in it -- e.g., an argument in favor of cleaning the equipment regularly), but the publication itself is not an argument as a whole.

An essay by contrast is an argument -- for something. An essay on ethics (discussed elsewhere in this thread) is an argument in favor of some theme dealing with some subject. It is not a how-to manual.

Of course, the term "technical" can apply to some philosophical writings -- for example, one might say that an article in a professional philosophical journal about some obscure element of Kant's philosophy is "technical," in the sense that it deals with a fine point that would never come up in everyday life.

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