by Kenneth Mai
Your essay doesn’t flow. Add some transitions.
Those words – along with comments such as “Needs better transitions,” “Where’s the transition?,” or simply “TRANSITION!!!” – plague many a paper that may perhaps otherwise be brilliant.
See, it’s like this. Pretend that the many ideas you’re churning out within a paper are islands in the ocean. (That’s a metaphor! Sometimes metaphors work nicely in papers! ) Some islands are bigger than others. Some are closer to each other, whilst some may seem to be drifting off far away from all the others. Similarly, some ideas are smaller bits a cohesive whole, while others require a bit more effort to reel in. Your task is to gather these islands into a sort of kingdom that you rule. But in order to make sure that you have full control over everything, you need to connect the islands to each other. Now, it’s fine that each island isn’t directly connected to every other island, especially when they’re far enough away from each other to not really be related at all. But ultimately you want all the islands connected to make up a unified whole. So what do you do?
You build bridges!
In the context of writing a paper, these bridges are your transitions. You have two ideas that are related— islands that are close enough that you can build a bridge between them—but ultimately distinct. In order to help your readers across that gulf, then, you need to put in a transition.
But what exactly is a transition? Is it one of the sequential words – “first,” “second,” “finally,” etc. – that were the gold standard of midde school writing? Well…perhaps. But you have many more options now. The kind of transition you use depends on the relationship that you’re trying to build between two ideas, and those relationships can be quite complex. Transitions can be as short as a word or a couple of words to something as long as a sentence or even an entire paragraph. What’s important isn’t so much the shape of the transition as the underlying connection that is being made.
Here are a few useful types of transitions to keep in mind.
- Sequential Transitions: Here, we’re not talking so much about “first, second, third.” Rather, this kind of transition points more towards the ideas that logically follow each other. Words such as “therefore” or “then,” or phrases like “This indicates that…”, show a relationship between the ideas. These transitions are used when one idea is the premise on which the next idea depends or when the second idea comes as a deduction from the first.
Examples: Thus, Therefore, Then; It follows that, This indicates that, This implies that; From this we can see that, What this means is that…
- Comparative Transitions: Sometimes, it’s not so much that one idea is derivative of another, but rather that they share some sort of property. This is especially useful when the relationship between the two ideas isn’t obvious. This type of transition is useful in comparative essays (for obvious reasons) but also instrumental when you are using analogies to make a point about some sort of topic (such as talking about islands to make a point about transitions!)
Examples: Like, Also, Similarly; Just as, In the same vein; This idea can also be seen in…, A similar phenomenon is found in …
- Contrastive Transitions: There are times when you’re neither describing premise-conclusion relationships nor looking at similarities, but instead focusing on contrasts: “This author says this, but that author says that.” “This appears to be the case, but in reality, it’s something else.” These transitions are useful not only in compare-and-contrast essays, but also whenever you’re trying to debunk a claim or to show another side of an issue. These words can also help you to move on to an entirely different issue.
Examples: But, Though, However, Nevertheless/Nonetheless; Then again, On the other hand, At the same time; This ignores, It’s not…but rather, The difference between…and…is that…
- Summing Up Transitions: You’ve established an idea and thrown lots of brilliant evidence our way. Now what? In order to make sure your readers won’t miss important information, it’s a good idea provide the quick and dirty version of the ideas you just laid out before introducing your big, final insight.
Examples: Essentially, Basically, Ultimately; In short, In other words, That is to say; This boils down to, The main point is…
Ultimately, the goal of these tools is to bring a sense of cohesion to your paper by showing the logical progression of your thoughts; they’re signposts telling your reader which bridge to cross and what the two islands linked by that bridge have to do with each other. These signposts ought to be everywhere within your paper, moving your reader between phrases and sentences in addition to paragraphs or larger chunks. Sometimes multiple signposts are needed to guide a reader across the bridge, because of the complex relationship of those two ideas. The primary goal to keep in mind, though, is to make sure your reader has a smooth trip. That’s how you make your paper flow.
In my next post, I’ll offer some examples of transitional sentences and paragraphs.
The purpose of this handout is to give some basic instruction and advice regarding the creation of understandable and coherent paragraphs.
Contributors: Dana Lynn Driscoll, Allen Brizee
Last Edited: 2015-07-07 10:28:52
What is a paragraph?
A paragraph is a collection of related sentences dealing with a single topic. Learning to write good paragraphs will help you as a writer stay on track during your drafting and revision stages. Good paragraphing also greatly assists your readers in following a piece of writing. You can have fantastic ideas, but if those ideas aren't presented in an organized fashion, you will lose your readers (and fail to achieve your goals in writing).
The Basic Rule: Keep one idea to one paragraph
The basic rule of thumb with paragraphing is to keep one idea to one paragraph. If you begin to transition into a new idea, it belongs in a new paragraph. There are some simple ways to tell if you are on the same topic or a new one. You can have one idea and several bits of supporting evidence within a single paragraph. You can also have several points in a single paragraph as long as they relate to the overall topic of the paragraph. If the single points start to get long, then perhaps elaborating on each of them and placing them in their own paragraphs is the route to go.
Elements of a paragraph
To be as effective as possible, a paragraph should contain each of the following: Unity, Coherence, A Topic Sentence, and Adequate Development. As you will see, all of these traits overlap. Using and adapting them to your individual purposes will help you construct effective paragraphs.
The entire paragraph should concern itself with a single focus. If it begins with one focus or major point of discussion, it should not end with another or wander within different ideas.
Coherence is the trait that makes the paragraph easily understandable to a reader. You can help create coherence in your paragraphs by creating logical bridges and verbal bridges.
- The same idea of a topic is carried over from sentence to sentence
- Successive sentences can be constructed in parallel form
- Key words can be repeated in several sentences
- Synonymous words can be repeated in several sentences
- Pronouns can refer to nouns in previous sentences
- Transition words can be used to link ideas from different sentences
A topic sentence
A topic sentence is a sentence that indicates in a general way what idea or thesis the paragraph is going to deal with. Although not all paragraphs have clear-cut topic sentences, and despite the fact that topic sentences can occur anywhere in the paragraph (as the first sentence, the last sentence, or somewhere in the middle), an easy way to make sure your reader understands the topic of the paragraph is to put your topic sentence near the beginning of the paragraph. (This is a good general rule for less experienced writers, although it is not the only way to do it). Regardless of whether you include an explicit topic sentence or not, you should be able to easily summarize what the paragraph is about.
The topic (which is introduced by the topic sentence) should be discussed fully and adequately. Again, this varies from paragraph to paragraph, depending on the author's purpose, but writers should be wary of paragraphs that only have two or three sentences. It's a pretty good bet that the paragraph is not fully developed if it is that short.
Some methods to make sure your paragraph is well-developed:
- Use examples and illustrations
- Cite data (facts, statistics, evidence, details, and others)
- Examine testimony (what other people say such as quotes and paraphrases)
- Use an anecdote or story
- Define terms in the paragraph
- Compare and contrast
- Evaluate causes and reasons
- Examine effects and consequences
- Analyze the topic
- Describe the topic
- Offer a chronology of an event (time segments)
How do I know when to start a new paragraph?
You should start a new paragraph when:
- When you begin a new idea or point. New ideas should always start in new paragraphs. If you have an extended idea that spans multiple paragraphs, each new point within that idea should have its own paragraph.
- To contrast information or ideas. Separate paragraphs can serve to contrast sides in a debate, different points in an argument, or any other difference.
- When your readers need a pause. Breaks between paragraphs function as a short "break" for your readers—adding these in will help your writing be more readable. You would create a break if the paragraph becomes too long or the material is complex.
- When you are ending your introduction or starting your conclusion. Your introductory and concluding material should always be in a new paragraph. Many introductions and conclusions have multiple paragraphs depending on their content, length, and the writer's purpose.
Transitions and signposts
Two very important elements of paragraphing are signposts and transitions. Signposts are internal aids to assist readers; they usually consist of several sentences or a paragraph outlining what the article has covered and where the article will be going.
Transitions are usually one or several sentences that "transition" from one idea to the next. Transitions can be used at the end of most paragraphs to help the paragraphs flow one into the next.