Signposting is important – it gives your reader a map of sorts so they know where you intend to take your argument. I’m a strong proponent of the argument that in nonfiction writing, you have little reason to surprise your reader. I’ve made this point before on the blog.
A well-structured manuscript should guide the reader. One of your jobs as a writer is to manage your reader’s expectations. Let the reader know how you intend to make your argument, and when you intend to introduce different elements of your argument. A reader should not complete chapter 1 and be completely surprised by the content of chapter 2.
Too much signposting, however, is a distraction. It directs your reader to focus on a future argument rather than the point you are making in the moment. Even worse, consistently alluding to a future section or chapter gives the impression that your current section or chapter is incomplete.
Too much signposting can be an indication that there is a structural problem. For instance, if you are writing the second chapter of your manuscript and find that you are constantly referencing a point you intend to make in chapter five, it may be an indication that your manuscript is not properly organized.
How can you tell if there is too much signposting? Like most aspects of writing, there is no magic formula to tell you the right amount of signposting. You should be aware of where you signpost, though. In your revision process you should do the following: highlight each sentence where you allude to another section of your manuscript. Make those highlights in one color that is different than any other colors you use to mark your text. Now, take a look. Are you always alluding to the same section? Or, is your signposting more haphazard? Is there one specific section of your manuscript where you see a lot of highlighted text? Why is that? Is the argument you present in that section incomplete or unsubstantiated? Doing this will push you to think about how the sections of your manuscript relate to one another. You can also do this with published work, to discover articles and books where the author signposts effectively.
If you discover that your signposting is excessive, take a moment to review the outline of your manuscript, or start a reverse outline of your draft. Try rearranging sections of your manuscript to see if you find a new organization more satisfying. Remember, it is not the signposting itself that is the problem. Rather, the signposting indicates a bigger organizational problem in the text that needs to be attended to.