(This sections was not in the original text; it is an addition with strong alterations.)
Transitioning between paragraphs is important. Without effective transitions, paragraphs can seem disorganized, and the ideas can seem unrelated or off-topic. With effective transitions, the paragraphs and ideas can seem to connect and relate in natural and logical ways. These results can occur regardless of the quality or merit of the ideas on their own.
So how do you create effective transitions? Let’s explore some strategies and evaluate them briefly.
Strategy 1: Transitional Words and Phrases
The most common and basic advice is to use transitional words and phrases, such as additionally, however, furthermore, admittedly, first and foremost, in conclusion, among many others. These are acceptable and functional, especially for beginning writers, for they are easy to add to drafts, and they clarify the relationships between ideas in simple ways.
Transitional words can even change the intended interpretation of a sentence. Let’s take the common conjunctions and and but as examples of how meaning changes with transitions:
- This college has small classes, and students get more one-on-one time with their professors.
- This college has small classes, but students get more one-on-one time with their professors.
Since “more one-on-one time” is implied to be a good thing, sentence 1 clarifies that “small classes” are good too, for the word “and” connects both ideas. In sentence 2, “small classes” are suddenly bad. That’s because the word “but” contrasts the two ideas. The two sentences state the same claims, but the single transitional word controls how they are meant to be interpreted.
Other transitional words can clarify other kinds of relationships between ideas, such as the order of ideas, or cause and effect, or importance, among others. See the following example:
There are numerous advantages to owning a hybrid car. First, they get 20 percent to 35 percent more miles to the gallon than a fuel-efficient gas-powered vehicle. Second, they produce very few emissions during low speed city driving. Because they do not require gas, hybrid cars reduce dependency on fossil fuels, which helps lower prices at the pump. Alex bought a hybrid car two years ago and has been extremely impressed with its performance. “It’s the cheapest car I’ve ever had,” she said. “The running costs are far lower than previous gas-powered vehicles I’ve owned.” Given the low running costs and environmental benefits of owning a hybrid car, it is likely that many more people will follow Alex’s example in the near future.
Each of the underlined words is a transition word. Words such as first and second are transition words that show sequence or clarify order. They help organize the writer’s ideas by showing that he or she has another point to make in support of the topic sentence. Other transition words that show order include third, also, and furthermore.
The transition word because is a transition word of consequence that continues a line of thought. It indicates that the writer will provide an explanation of a result. In this sentence, the writer explains why hybrid cars will reduce dependency on fossil fuels (because they do not require gas). Other transition words of consequence include as a result, so that, since, or for this reason.
To include a summarizing transition in her concluding sentence, the writer could rewrite the final sentence as follows:
In conclusion, given the low running costs and environmental benefits of owning a hybrid car, it is likely that many more people will follow Alex’s example in the near future.
The following chart provides some useful transition words to connect supporting sentences and concluding sentences.
Writing at Work
Transitional words and phrases are useful tools to incorporate into workplace documents. They guide the reader through the document, clarifying relationships between sentences and paragraphs so that the reader understands why they have been written in that particular order.
For example, when writing an instructional memo, it may be helpful to consider the following transitional words and phrases: before you begin, first, next, then, finally, after you have completed. Using these transitions as a template to write your memo will provide readers with clear, logical instructions about a particular process and the order in which steps are supposed to be completed.
Overall, this is a good, basic strategy, but experienced and professional writers do not rely on it alone. Instead, they will combine it with other strategies.
Strategy 2: Conclusions as Transitions
You might encounter advice that tells you to use the conclusion of one paragraph to state the main idea of the next paragraph. This often backfires and creates more confusion and disorganization than necessary. For this reason, you will find that professional writers do not use this strategy.
A better approach to this type of strategy is to conclude one paragraph with a naturally emerging question, and then to begin the next paragraph with an answer to that question. see the following example.
J.R.R. Tolkien is one of the most popular and beloved authors of the 20th century. His book The Lord of the Rings has sold over 150 million copies, making it the highest-selling book of the 20th century, and the third highest fiction book of all time. And his book The Hobbit is only a few spots behind with over 100 million copies sold, making tied with others at fourth highest-selling in the 20th century, and sixth of all time. So if his work is this popular, why do so many literary critics and professors discount his importance?
The simple answer is that Tolkien is popular, and too many academics believe that literature can’t be masterful if common readers enjoy it. …
The first paragraph discusses one idea (Tolkien’s popularity) and lets it lead to a question about that idea (so why is he discounted by critics?). Then the next paragraph answers that question. Notice how inferior the writing seems to become if this transition were removed:
J.R.R. Tolkien is one of the most popular and beloved authors of the 20th century. His book The Lord of the Rings has sold over 150 million copies, making it the highest-selling book of the 20th century, and the third highest fiction book of all time. And his book The Hobbit is only a few spots behind with over 100 million copies sold, making it tied with others at fourth highest-selling in the 20th century, and sixth of all time.
Too many academics believe that literature can’t be masterful if common readers enjoy it. …
This inferior version seems to wander into a different point as if the writer were not in control of what ideas get discussed when.
Overall, this strategy of leading to a question and then answering it is effective, and experienced and professional writers do use it some. But it comes with two difficulties:
(1) Few paragraphs will naturally lead to concluding questions, and few topic sentences will be specific answers to questions, so this strategy is often too problematic to force onto your writing.
(2) This strategy cannot be used too many times in a single essay without creating a false, robotic tone.
Strategy 3: Consistent Terms as Transitions
Unfortunately, in an effort to add variety to their paragraphs or essays, some writers make the mistake of using different terms for the same idea. This causes confusion and disorganization, especially when the idea being named is important. And it keeps readers from being able to follow along with the ideas and see how they connect to others; in other words, it fails to transition. So a good strategy is to decide on which term best fits an idea, and to keep to that same term whenever you refer to that idea.
See the following paragraph as a bad example in need of revision using this strategy:
People usually do not put others’ opinions of their marriage into perspective when they are deciding whether to marry someone or not. Just because society views homosexual marriage against everyday norms does not change that there are homosexual couples that would like to make a commitment to each other.
This paragraph creates confusion because it uses about ten different terms to mean only four different ideas. Notice how many different terms are used for the single idea of those who want to marry:
- Each other
This makes it sound like different types or persons are meant with each use of a different term, but the writer intends the opposite, so a single consistent term should be chosen for those who want to marry.
As for the idea of those who are judging marriage, this paragraph uses to different terms: others and society, which sound different. For the idea of judgment itself, it uses opinions and views, which sound different. For the idea of marriage, it uses to marry and to make a commitment, which sound different.
To revise this using the strategy of consistent terms, let’s choose the following:
- Those who want to marry: couples
- Those who are judging marriage: society
- The judgments: opinions
- Marriage: to marry
Couples usually do not put society’s opinions of their marriage into perspective when they are deciding whether to marry. Society’s opinion that homosexual marriage is against everyday norms does not change the fact that there are homosexual couples that would still like to marry.
Now each idea can effectively transition to the next because we can tell which idea is which. And pronouns such as “their” can be used without fear of confusion.
This strategy is used by experienced and professional writers so often that it has become a mark of writing skill in general. The weak writer fears repetition and adds variety without seeing the consequences. The strong writer trusts consistency and controls meaning by choosing the right terms and sticking to them.
Strategy 4: Brief Summary Transitions (with Demonstrative Words)
This is an immensely effective and accessible strategy for beginners and experts alike, and professional writers use it all the time, but it is rarely if ever taught (I have never found another textbook that includes it). That is a shame, for it is simple enough, and students can quickly make it natural element in their writing, so let’s remedy that now. Here is the essence of this strategy: As you discuss your next idea, summarize your preceding paragraph in a brief phrase.
This strategy allows readers to more efficiently see how ideas interlock. This kind of summary is particularly aided by the use of demonstrative pronouns and determiners:
These are called demonstrative words because they point out, or demonstrate, the idea they’re referring to. Talking about a table doesn’t refer back to something already established, but talking about that table or this table does. Thus, a quick connection is made naturally and logically, and a transition is created.
In essence, this strategy calls on you to funnel each larger body of discussion down into the beginning stream of the next, adding to the effect of “flow.” Notice this strategy in the following paragraphs. Also notice how the instances aren’t necessary in their respective sentences or paragraphs, that instead they are added to function purely as transitions. I have added emphasis in each instance by bold type, with the demonstrative word italicized:
In the final paragraph of my last column, I observed that the report of the New York State Commission on Higher Education slights—indeed barely mentions—the arts and humanities, despite the wide-ranging scope of its proposals. Those who posted comments agreed with David Small that “the arts and the humanities are always the last to receive any assistance.”
There were, however, different explanations of this unhappy fact. Sean Pidgeon put the blame on “humanities departments who are responsible for the leftist politics that still turn people off.” Kedar Kulkarni blamed “the absence of a culture that privileges Learning to improve oneself as a human being.” Bethany blamed universities, which because they are obsessed with “maintaining funding” default on the obligation to produce “well rounded citizens.” Matthew blamed no one, because in his view the report’s priorities are just what they should be: “When a poet creates a vaccine or a tangible good that can be produced by a Fortune 500 company, I’ll rescind my comment.”
Although none of these commentators uses the word, the issue they implicitly raise is justification. How does one justify funding the arts and humanities? It is clear which justifications are not available. You can’t argue that the arts and humanities are able to support themselves through grants and private donations. You can’t argue that a state’s economy will benefit by a new reading of “Hamlet.” You can’t argue – well you can, but it won’t fly – that a graduate who is well-versed in the history of Byzantine art will be attractive to employers (unless the employer is a museum). You can talk as Bethany does about “well rounded citizens,” but that ideal belongs to an earlier period, when the ability to refer knowledgeably to Shakespeare or Gibbon or the Thirty Years War had some cash value (the sociologists call it cultural capital). Nowadays, larding your conversations with small bits of erudition is more likely to irritate than to win friends and influence people.
—Stanley Fish, “Will the Humanities Save Us?”
In the second paragraph above, “this unhappy fact” is a brief summary of the previous paragraph, which was all about the details of one unhappy fact. The second paragraph can then proceed clearly in response to that fact. In the third paragraph, “these commentators” is a brief summary of the previous paragraph, which was entirely a list of comments from named individuals. The third paragraph can then proceed clearly as an analysis of those comments.
See the same strategy in use in the following paragraphs from a different essay:
Many things have been urged upon the beleaguered public schools: install computers; reduce class size; pay teachers better and respect them more; give them bodyguards; reform teacher training; re-establish the principal’s authority; create a rank of master teacher; let volunteers take on the chores; recruit liberal arts majors from the colleges; purge the bureaucracy and cut down paperwork; lengthen the school year; increase homework; stick to the basics; stop “social promotion;” set up remedial clinics; kill social studies and bring back history; wheel infants to the blackboard in their cradles; and-latest plan-pay the kids not to drop out or play truant.
Except for the last, these recommendations all have merit and some are being tried. But to the best of my knowledge, the central feature of modern schooling has never been singled out for critical discussion. I mean the use of multiple-choice tests.
This type of test and its variants—filling in words, rearranging items, matching diagrams, choosing summary statements, and so on—dominates every mind in the classroom, the teacher’s as well as the student’s. Passing and failing, ratings of teachers and schools, national and state rankings, the rise and fall of literacy, admission to college and other institutions—all hang upon this instrument peculiar to our century.
—Jacques Barzun, “Reasons to De-Test the Schools”
Compare the above examples to the following, which lacks this transition strategy at the beginning of each paragraph.
Professors have a professional interest in—indeed a professional duty to uphold—liberty of thought and discussion. But in recent years, precisely where they should be most engaged and outspoken they have been apathetic and inarticulate.
Consider Yale. On Oct. 1, the university hosted Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard. His drawing of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban became the best known of 12 cartoons published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005. That led to deadly protests throughout the Muslim world. On the same day, at an unrelated event, Yale hosted Brandeis Prof. Jytte Klausen. Her new book, The Cartoons that Shook the World, was subject in August to a last minute prepublication decision by Yale President Richard Levin and Yale University Press to remove not only the 12 cartoons but also all representations of Muhammad, including respected works of art.
The Westergaard appearance inspired protests. Muslim students condemned Yale’s invitation to the cartoonist as religiously and racially insensitive, compared him to Holocaust deniers and white supremacists, and declared his art and utterances hate speech rather than free speech.
—Peter Berkowitz “Academia Goes Silent on Free Speech”
From one paragraph to the next, note the resulting effects of abruptness, disorientation, and lack of referential clarity. To be fair to Berkowitz, journalists like himself are often constrained by extremely limited word-counts and page-space, and phrases are often edited out of their writing without their specific agreement. It could have been the case that the author’s original transitions were cut for brevity. But writers in college rarely find themselves in the predicament of having too much relevant writing in their essays, so this strategy can be added confidently.
Try revising this example from Berkowitz using this fourth strategy. Focus on the beginning sentences of the second and third paragraphs. For the first, “Consider Yale,” add a phrase that summarizes what the first paragraph was, or that shows what we should “consider Yale” as being. Use a demonstrative word to help. For the second, “The Westergaard appearance inspired protests,” add a phrase that summarizes what happened in previous paragraph and suggests how it relates to this paragraph. Again, use a demonstrative word to help.