Steer Your Reader Right With Effective Transitions -->

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Steer Your Reader Right With Effective Transitions

Photograph of Kayla Skarbakka
By Kayla Skarbakka, Writing Consultant

As Sarah noted a while back, our lives are filled with transitions ranging from the petty to the profound: one mood, time of day, year, or period of life to another. Just as transitions help us navigate and find meaning in our lives, they can help us find cohesion in our writing. It makes sense (both in life and in writing) to acknowledge shifts in time, situation, or thought rather than jumping willy-nilly from point to point.

It’s not enough, though, to just sprinkle a few random transitional words into your paper. Instead, use transitions mindfully to highlight clear and thoughtful connections among ideas. Consider the following tips to ensure that your transitions are always appropriate and effective.

1.  Different types of transitions require different levels of acknowledgment. 

On my friend’s birthday, I sent her a card. When she got a new job, I called to congratulate her. When she got married, I bought a plane ticket to be there in person.

Just as we observe life transitions in different ways, depending on their significance, you’ll want to be aware of how you emphasize transitions in your writing. Transitions between sentences are generally fairly short; transitional terms such as for example, however, similarly, and additionally are often sufficient to help connect ideas within a paragraph.

Transitions between paragraphs, however, are often more complex because you’re connecting not just sentences but entire topics or themes. For example, say I’m writing about a conflict at a local business. I spend one paragraph describing employees’ complaints about poor wages, and now I’m beginning a new paragraph discussing the leadership team’s response to these complaints. Consider the following transition options:
  • However, the leadership team has stated that they are unwilling to increase wages.
  • Despite these indications of widespread and severe employee dissatisfaction, the leadership team has stated that they are unwilling to increase wages.
Which is most effective in tying together these two major ideas?

2.  Transitions should make sense

You wouldn’t send a sympathy card when your nephew graduates from high school or wish your friend a happy anniversary at her birthday party. Similarly, you won’t want to say however when you mean additionally, furthermore when you mean finally, or consequently when you mean for example. Every time you use a transitional word or phrase, make sure that it accurately expresses the relationship you are trying to express. Check out the following example:
  • Peters (2010) found that most teenagers complain five or more times a day. However, Wilson (2009) also found that 87% of teenagers frequently complain.

Saying both however and also is confusing. Do the scholars’ findings align, or do they contradict each other? How could you rewrite this transition to make more sense? 

3.  No need to repeat

If you found out that a friend is moving to California, you probably wouldn’t contact her via telephone, e-mail, Skype, Facebook, and Twitter and then also come knocking on her door. Such overkill can appear with transitions as well:
  • Finally, in conclusion, the after-school program provides a valuable service.
  • In addition, the authors further noted that… 

With transitions, as with all elements of writing, concision is key.                                                   

4.  Transitions shouldn’t state the obvious

At the start of this month, I doubt that any of us said “Before, it was 2012. Now it is 2013.”  At commencement ceremonies, college presidents don’t say “You are no longer students; you now hold degrees.” These statements do indeed identify the transition in question, but they do so in an obvious and unnecessary way.  

Consider the following sentences:
  • Before I talk about X, it is important to discuss Y.
  • Now that I have addressed Y, I am going to talk about Z. 

Your reader will be able to tell that you are switching topics without your announcing the fact. Instead, dig in deeper to show how or why these ideas are related:
  • Essential to the foundation of X is Y.
  • One possible result of Y is Z.

While ineffective transitions can confuse or disorient readers, thoughtful and appropriate transitions will steer your reader through a connected, cohesive draft.