12. Signposting and Cross-referencing

This is the twelfth  article in the fourteen-part series ‘Dissertation Writing from Start to Finish’. For the full list of articles click here

Today we’re going to cover two very important techniques for making your dissertation feel like a single, coherent piece of work:

  1. Signposting – take the reader gently by the hand and lead them through your dissertation; and
  2. Cross referencing – interweave your ideas by referring the reader around your dissertation.

Without further ado, let’s get into it.

The importance of sign-posting

Making your dissertation easy to read and easy to understand is very important.

‘Signposting’ guides the reader through your argument. You tell them what is coming, so so they know what to expect. Your arguments will make better sense to them this way, compared to if you’d just thrown them in the deep end with your interesting (and I’m sure complex) analysis; academics need armbands. 

There are a few ways of doing this:

First, make sure that each paragraph has a clear topic sentence indicating what is going to be discussed in it. You should be able to understand the basics of your chapter simply from reading the first and last sentence of each paragraph. See paragraph two on page 10 of my English dissertation for an example.

Second, zooming out a little, your chapter titles should also give your reader a good idea of the logical progression of your project. It should be clear from a glance down your table of contents (see Article 3) at the start, what your project is about, and how you’ll be approaching it (whether it’s chronological or thematic, for example). 

In the same way, having a variety of headings within each chapter can be a good way of leading your reader through the text.

Thirdly, keep an eye on how long your paragraphs are; if they are more than a page your reader will start to get lost in the sea of text. Remember, academics need those armbands. Without help they’ll forget where they are, what they’re reading, and why they aren’t making another cup of coffee or taking the dog around the block.

Cross-references

Cross references are really important. They help to tie your dissertation together, and make it seem like a single, coherent project, rather than a collection of connected essays; each part relies on, and enriches, each part that follows. Accurate cross referencing also gives the reader the sense that you know what you’re talking about, which is never a bad thing.

Cross referencing also helps to bring out the nuances of your ideas. Each time you mention a complex area, you don’t have to repeat your earlier arguments. Instead you refer the reader back to when they were first made, and then build on them. Doing so also makes the trajectory of your dissertation clearer to the reader; they clearly move from one, distinct section to the next, rather than reading through something that loops and repeats itself. 

Clear links between the start and the end are particularly important; you encourage the reader either to look ahead or to look back at the edifice you have built for them. 

Make sure there are cross references throughout. Writing little opening clauses such as “As was mentioned in chapter 2…” or “Now we know that not all penguins are black (see chapter 1)…”. Footnotes can be a neat way of doing this; sprinkle your chapters with “See chapter x.” 

Next steps

It’s as simple as that! Make it really obvious what each section’s about with topic sentences and (sub)headings, and cross-refer throughout the document. 

Keep going. You’re doing fantastically (I know you are) and by working the above through you’ll have an almost final draft. The next article in the series is about two things to do when you’re reading through your near-final draft, which will take your dissertation to the next level; find it here.

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