Strangely, in the past two days I've read two opposing viewpoints on how to introduce topics in academic essays.

I first read a question and answer that suggested it's better in modern essays to avoid the use of signposts ("the next paragraph discusses . . ."), and that questions could be used as an alternative.

Shortly after that, almost by accident, I discovered a different question and answer that indicated asking questions of any kind in an essay should be avoided, and that the classic use of signposts should be adhered to instead.

I found this humorous, because, after reading both, I was left with contradictory advice. When I was in university many years ago, I used to use a very moderate amount of both techniques, relaying on neither much (if at all), and more often simply starting a discussion without indicating anything about it ahead of time.

But without meaning to incite a debate between these two methodologies, I was curious if there is an alternative method that could be used—one that relies neither on narrative signposts nor on questions.

One idea that came to mind is the use of a table of contents. This, on its own, could visually point readers to sections with headings that describe content, avoiding the need to either signpost or ask questions in the body of the essay. However, I can't recall this being used in any of the essays I've been exposed to in the past. (I have seen headings used, without a table of contents, in some academic articles, but not by students for instructors in a course.)

Would a table of contents even be acceptable in an essay? If not, are there any other methods that could be used to point readers to upcoming content?


On the one hand, years ago I heard a lecture on public speaking in which the speaker said, "tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them". His point was that it's easy for a speaker -- and I think this applies almost as much to writers -- to think that you only need to say something once and the audience should get it. But in real life, people skim over things, don't understand it the first time, etc. So having some sort of "signpost" as you call it at the beginning and a summary at the end can really help comprehension.

On the other hand, excessive lead-in can sound juvenile and annoying. I've read many things that have introductory sentences or paragraphs that I consider totally unnecessary. Like, "Proper tuning of the engine is very important. We should be careful about how we tune the engine. An improperly tuned engine will not run properly." Blah blah blah. And I find myself thinking, Yeah, I get it, it's important. So HOW do I tune the stupid engine??

I generally dislike questions as a way to introduce a subject in an essay, because they usually sound fabricated to me, like the soft-ball questions that a friendly reporter may throw to a politician at a press conference. "Will the XYZ bill reduce unemployment? If we consider ..." blah blah. It sounds lame. You're not really asking a question. You already know the answer, or think you know it. Just tell us your answer. Not that it's NEVER effective, but I think it has very narrow application.

So, my point -- and I do have a point -- is: There are basically 4 techniques I can think of:

  1. A title or heading

  2. A lead-in sentence

  3. A leading question

  4. Plunge right in

I think #1 is simple, direct, and avoids sounding awkward.

#2 works but can be overdone.

I'd avoid #3, but there are times when it's appropriate.

And #4 is fine as long as it doesn't create confusion or ambiguity what you're talking about.

  • Are headings currently acceptable in essays? (I did some unusual things in essays I wrote—such as Socratic dialogues in story settings—that were accepted by my professors. So, maybe being a bit different is okay so long as it's done well.) – Jason Bassford May 16 '18 at 2:00
  • @JasonBassford I've written many essays with section headings. Whether it's acceptable is up to the particular teacher, publication, or web site. – Jay May 16 '18 at 6:39

I wrote the first answer you mentioned. The advice I quoted from Pinker therein is intended for experts explaining to a perhaps broader audience than an essay has. The argument against excessive metadiscourse stands, but questions aren't the only alternative. I advise reading the next few pages, which exemplifies a few other techniques. From my experience writing and reading academic papers, one question-free strategy is to summarize what is known or had been argued, what is agreed on or not, and how specific developments have moved the subject forward, with concise references to sources and as little name-dropping and discussion of theorists and researchers as possible. The review section of any PhD thesis in your field will illustrate how this is done.

Edit: I thought I'd quote an excerpt of my PhD thesis (from Sec. 2.6.6) to illustrate the technique:

There are two approaches to gauge fixing the graviton two-point function. One approach includes a gauge-fixing term in the linearised theory, and obtains the propagator enter image description here. The other obtains a graviton correlator after complete gauge fixing. The graviton two-point function obtained by the latter method, hereafter the gauge-invariant graviton two point function, is physical in the sense that its gauge degrees of freedom are completely fixed. This two-point function is infrared-divergent in the Poincaré patch of de Sitter space [62].

This discovery began the debate of gravity’s infrared issues, and this controversy has some similarities with an issue in the FP-ghost sector. One subtlety was that the infrared divergences of the two-point function may be expressed in a pure-gauge form [63, 64, 65], and the infrared divergences may be removed entirely with a suitable choice of mode functions [66]. In this sense, these infrared divergences are gauge-artefact. Indeed, the two-point function has been given an infrared-finite construction in de Sitter space in some other coordinate patches [67, 68, 69] and covariant gauges [70, 71, 72].

After Faizal and Higuchi introduced the FMP in Ref. 2 to address the FP-ghost sector implications in 2008, they provided a treatment of the graviton sector in the global patch in 2012, which also relied on temporarily endowing a field (in this case the graviton) with a fictitious mass [73]. The resulting gauge-invariant graviton two-point function is known to be equivalent to the linearised Weyl tensor [74], which is both de Sitter invariant and infrared-convergent in a vacuum state of the theory that is like a Euclidean Bunch–Davies vacuum [75, 76, 77]. Higuchi and I have previously observed 2 that, since Ref. 2 obtains the Weyl tensor as its gauge-invariant graviton two-point function, non-interacting linearised gravity has no infrared problem in de Sitter space.

However, what is contentious is whether interacting linearised gravity retains an infrared problem for the graviton propagator. Some say it does [78], while others say it does not [79]. One could similarly ask whether interacting linearised gravity retains an infrared problem for the FP-ghost propagator. The debate between sources such as Refs. [78] and [79] regarding the graviton two-point function is analogous to the FP-ghost sector issues I consider in this thesis. However, I will consider the FP-ghost sector issues in all the spacetimes of interest identified in Sec. 1.2.

  • So, to paraphrase, what you are saying is to simply provide an introductory summary of what is to follow. This doesn't explicitly communicate what will follow, but, once read, the structure that follows will be familiar. – Jason Bassford May 15 '18 at 14:19
  • @JasonBassford That sounds about right. – J.G. May 15 '18 at 14:27

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