Transitional Words Process Essay
Date published November 10, 2014 by Shane Bryson. Date updated: November 1, 2016
Writers see all of the connections in their own writing without the help of good transitions. You’ve been thinking deeply about your topic and essay, so of course it’s easy for you to see how it all fits together. But your reader can’t always see the connections that appear naturally to you. This difference of perspective is the cause when many writers fail to use effective transitions.
This article offers four techniques you can use to make sure your reader follows your train of thought.
Good transition practice clears up for your reader the connections between your thoughts, and clear connections are crucial to clear writing. To be a good writer, you need to help your reader understand how what you’ve already said relates to what you’re saying, and you need to help them see the logic of this relationship.
1. The known-new contract
One way to keep this relationship clear is through a device called the known-new contract. The known-new contract is about both agreement of topic matter between sentences and sentence-to-sentence cohesion.
It requires you to consider the ordering of information in a sentence. We can think of the contract in terms of three rules:
- Do not begin sentences with new information.
- Do begin each sentence by referring to information that has already been given.
- Do end each sentence with new information.
This practice allows the reader to approach each new thought on familiar ground, and each sentence performs the task of integrating old information with new information. Unexplained shifts of topic are far less common when you fulfill the contract.
For example, compare variations on the sentences you just read with the following paraphrased version:
“3. Do end each sentence with new information. The reader approaches each new thought on familiar ground, and the sentence does the work of integrating this old information with the new information it conveys.”
In this example, the beginning of the second sentence is slightly disorienting—“the reader”? What reader? We haven’t been talking about readers in this sub-section, so how does a reader relate to the topic matter of the sentence before? The leap to a new topic at the beginning of the sentence breaks the cohesion between the sentences, and the sentences don’t have similar topic matter sticking them together anymore. For this reason, the original version is better, more cohesive.
Tip—Use “this x” to begin sentences
Notice that in that original version, the second sentence begins with “this practice.” Here, “This” is a kind of dummy word, but it allows for a follow-up word to connect topic matter. Using a “this x” phrase can be helpful in fulfilling the known-new contract if you can’t think of a more natural way to begin with some known information. Use this trick where you need it, but don’t overuse it. Starting too many sentences with “this x” makes for over-repetitive sentence structure.
2. Transition words and phrases
The known-new contract makes for some of the most natural transitions, but there are plenty of transition words and phrases that you can use when fulfilling the known-new contract doesn’t seem to work for you. Transitional words and phrases include:
- subordinating conjunctions (while, although, when, etc.)
- relative pronouns (which, who, that, etc.)
- conjunctive adverbs (however, therefore, instead, furthermore, etc.)
- signposting phrases (in this case, for example, firstly, etc.).
These words and phrases all signal the function of the sentence in relation to what’s come before it. Use them to clarify the relationship between sentences wherever you feel this relationship isn’t quite clear already.
3. Group similar information
On the other hand, try to eliminate the need to transition unnecessarily. You might have noticed by now that transitioning effectively requires a document to use more words than it would otherwise use—we add known information to beginnings of sentences and use more transitional words and phrases. However, too much transitioning makes for baggy writing.
As much as possible, group all similar information into one spot in the paper, so that you don’t as often need to indicate changes of topic with good transitions. Say it once, say right, and then move on.
4. Transitioning between paragraphs
Paragraph transitions should usually be placed at the beginnings of new paragraphs, rather than at the ends of old ones. This is because paragraphs should focus on one topic and, as we just noted, similar information should be grouped together. Since transitions are usually forward-looking, they most often focus on the topic matter that follows them. A transition into a new paragraph usually focuses on the topic matter of that new paragraph, so the transition belongs to the new paragraph.
Tip—Summarize and then proceed
Unlike all of the other transitions we’ve seen, which focus on how sentences relate to one another, paragraph transitions relate the focus of a preceding paragraph to the focus of a new paragraph. For this reason, paragraph transitions usually offer a reference to the main point of the preceding paragraph (rather than to only the preceding sentence), and they relate this point to the main point of the present paragraph.
When writing a paragraph transition, focus on what the paragraph does:
- Does it continue with a related point (e.g. “Another point in support of x is y…)?
- Does it provide a counter-point to the previous paragraph (e.g. “The matter of x, however, is not the final word in an evaluation of y”)?
- Does it infer or deduce something from the previous paragraph or section (e.g. “From x, y, and z, we are now in a position to make plausible conclusions about p and q”)?
Two closing notes: Transition size and transition nuance
First, I’ve offered examples of transition words and phrases, but at times your transition will require a full sentence. Furthermore, in a longer work like a master’s thesis, to transition well full paragraphs are sometimes necessary. Remember, in academic writing you always need to be as concise as possible, but you also need to be as clear as possible. If you can’t transition clearly in a word, use a phrase. If you can’t do it clearly in a phrase, use a sentence. If you can’t do it in a sentence, well… use more.
Second, each transitional word or phrase has its own meaning, and certain transition words, such as therefore, are often misused. Be sure that you’re using the right transition words for what you mean.
The addition of just a few transitional words in the passage above helps the writerindicate how the different parts of the passage are logically related and strengthensthe "flow" of the sentences.
Three Problems to Avoid
Transitional words and phrases help strengthen writing, but they can be misused.Below are three things to be wary of as you bring transitional words and phrasesinto your essays.
Make sure the logical connections are clear as you use transitions.
Because transitions indicate relationships between words and ideas, they can bemisused if the relationship indicated by the transitional words is unclear or doesnot exist.Example: George's wife stands at the window and looks out at the rain falling onthe empty streets. For example, she sees a cat huddled under a table in the rain.("For example" does not make sense here because the woman seeing the cat isnot a clear "example" of anything in the first sentence.)Example: George's wife decides to go out into the rain to get the cat.Consequently, George sits in bed reading his book. ("Consequently" doesnot make sense here because it is unclear how George sitting in bedreading is a consequence of the woman deciding to get the cat.)
Avoid the overuse of transitions.
Transitions are supposed to guide readers through your writing, but overuse oftransitional words and phrases can have the opposite effect and can make yourwriting confusing.Example: Writing an essay can be challenging. However, there are techniquesthat can make the process a little easier. For example, taking plenty of notes onthe subject can help the writer generate ideas. Therefore, note-taking is animportant "pre-writing" strategy. In addition, some people "free-write," writingquickly for ten or twenty minutes to see what ideas arise. However, taking notesand free-writing are only the beginning. Ideas must eventually be organized in alogical way. Consequently, an outline can help the writer make sense of therough material generated through the note-taking and free-writingprocess. Therefore, writing an outline is another important step in the writingprocess. However, some writers are able to conceptualize a sense of logicalorder for their ideas without actually writing an outline. Nevertheless, thesewriters seem to have some kind of outline in their minds. In addition, an outlineshould help the writer formulate a thesis for the essay. Consequently, an outlinecan help give focus to the essay. (This passage could be stronger with fewertransitional words and phrases. Especially when the transitions are used at thebeginnings of sentences, they can become annoying or even confusing toreaders if they are overused.)