Three: Transitions

Quite possibly the greatest difference between a novice essay and a successful essay is the effective use of transitions.

Transitions are subtle connections between paragraphs that the reader barely notices when done correctly. A paper that employs paragraph transitions well creates a seamless reading experience wherein one paragraph naturally moves into the next.

As a writing teacher, I often heard students refer to the use (or lack) of transitions as the flow of a paper. During peer review sessions, students would lament that a classmate’s paper doesn’t flow well. Or perhaps the opposite would be true. “This paper has a nice flow to it, ” they would say.

But what is this mysterious concept of a paper’s flow? In my experience, this is simply the term students and even teachers reach for when they can’t quite put into words the actual mechanical aspect of the essay they want to reference. I pushed students to get more specific. What do you mean by flow? What is it exactly that makes a paper flow well? It’s not always easy to explain, even for veteran writers.

Good Transitions Make for Good “Flow”

What students really mean when they reference this amorphous concept of a paper’s flow is does it effectively use transitions to move from one idea to the next seamlessly, or does it jump around abruptly without leading the reader on one continuous journey?

The next time you read a paper that feels like it’s jumping around a lot, focus on the opening sentences in each paragraph. Do they reference the previous paragraph and situate the new paragraph within the context of the paper’s ongoing discussion? Chances are, probably not.

How to Write Effective Transitions

Now that we know how to identify poor use of transitions, let’s take a look at how to use them well.

For the essays you will likely be writing in your English 101 and English 102 classes, crafting good transitions is not terribly difficult once you have the proper formula. These kinds of argumentative essays typically have a central thesis statement and each of the paragraphs that follow your introduction will work to support that thesis statement.

Very often, each of those supporting paragraphs will employ a topic sentence that sets up the main point of the paragraph. This is where the formula for effective transitions enters the equation.

In Lesson Two on Topic Sentences, we mentioned the concept of an echo word or phrase that references the discussion of the previous paragraph. This echo phrase will contain a key word that links to the earlier discussion and alerts the reader that, although we are shifting directions a bit, we’re having the same conversation.

It’s a bit like moving to another room in the house as opposed to going next door to the neighbor’s house. If you move from the kitchen to the dining room, you can still converse with people in the kitchen. They will follow you into that room once you invite them to join you. Then, you can move them to the living room or the study. One room at a time. If you were to immediately jump out the window, your guests wouldn’t know where you went, so they would have a hard time following you. You have to lead your guest little by little to the place you want them to end up.

Let’s use a more concrete example. Examine the sentence which leads off this section.

“Now that we know how to identify poor use of transitions, let’s take a look at how to use them well.”

Notice how the echo phrase at the beginning of the sentence signals back to the previous section where we learned to identify poor transitions. This transitional sentence both echoes the former discussion and sets up the new one.

Further Study on Effective Transitions

This one trick will help you write more effective transitions in your papers, which will in turn cause them to read more seamlessly. Good transitions are the key to achieving that elusive flow all students seek in their essays.

It’s easy to know when a paper fails at using transitions because it will feel choppy. As a reader, you will have a hard time following the writer’s point because every time you start to settle into conversation, he jumps out a window, so to speak.

A good paper uses transitions to lead the reader from one paragraph to the next. Often, you won’t even notice good transitions as you read them because they seamlessly echo the concepts which come before and subtly position the new paragraph into the discussion.

When you’re ready, move on to Lesson Four: Taking Notes, or check out our Developmental Writing resources for students and teachers.