A common weakness in novice academic writing is a lack of flow; for readers, this lack of flow means they can’t easily see how one thought follows from another. To combat this problem, we need to learn how to make effective transitions between sentences. Such transitions are usually managed in one of two ways: through transition words or through evident links in the text. Both strategies have a role to play, but novice writers, unfortunately, often see transition words as their main way of moving from sentence to sentence. This over-reliance on transition words is actually detrimental to our writing because it can blind us to the value of using textual linkages to create more meaningful connections between sentences. Transition words are easy and thus allow us to avoid the hard work of grasping the actual connections in our texts. Texts full of transition words may actually feel choppy because unnecessary transition words can obscure the true nature of the relationship among sentences.
Here are a few key principles to help think about how to build clear transitions:
1) Avoid unclear reference: The single most important way of linking your sentences is through clear reference. Contrast these two simple examples: ‘A is connected to B. This is…’ and ‘A is connected to B. This connection is…’. Without the summary word (in this case, ‘connection’), we cannot tell whether the ‘this’ in the first example refers to A, to B, or to the connection between them. We call this pattern of explicit reference ‘this + summary word’. There will be times, of course, when the reference is obvious, but generally the reader needs to have the reference made explicit. So consider adopting a simple principle: never leave a ‘this’ orphaned and alone. Search for ‘this’ in your writing; if you find one all alone, you may be able to improve the flow in your writing by adding a summary word.
2) Avoid unnecessary transition words: The transition words most likely to fall into this category are the additive ones: ‘in addition’, ‘also’, ‘moreover’, ‘furthermore’. (Both ‘moreover’ and ‘furthermore’ can be correctly used as intensifiers—where one sentence deepens the claim of the previous one—but because they are so often used to indicate simple addition, I am including them here.) My first approach to an additive transition word at the start of a sentence is to remove it; if you are using it to say ‘here comes another related point’, it is probably unnecessary. If you are instead trying to make a more complicated connection, removing it and adding a more substantive indication of that link will often be far more helpful to the reader.
3) Avoid the mere appearance of causality: When we overuse causal words, we often undermine the actual connections we could be making. Using words such as ‘therefore’ and ‘hence’ and ‘thus’ as transitions can prevent us from clarifying the actual relationship between our ideas. Look closely at your use of causal words and make sure you reserve them for instances in which genuine causality is present. And if you decide that your ideas aren’t linked causally, you can devise a better way to express the actual relationship.
4) Use transition words to indicate a change of direction in your text: Whenever we are disagreeing with ourselves, it is essential that we indicate this fact to the reader. Consider these simple examples: ‘There is plentiful evidence for something. I think the opposite.’ and ‘There is plentiful evidence for something. However, I think the opposite.’ The first example sounds like you might be unintentionally contradicting yourself; emphasizing your intentions with a ‘but’ or ‘however’ lets the reader know what you are up to.
5) Use preview sentences to explain connections: When we write, we often discover what we need to say as we go along. This process means that we may be stringing sentences together with a lot of additive transition words: ‘First thing. Also, second thing. In addition, third thing. Furthermore, fourth thing.’ For the reader, this sequence can be hard to follow; in the worst case scenario, it only makes sense in retrospect. You don’t want your reader to have to wait for the end of the passage to grasp that there are four things going on. It’s likely much more powerful for the reader to know—in advance—that there will be four things. A preview sentence that mentions the four things to come can be an excellent way to create flow.
Our writing can also benefit from better transitions between paragraphs and sections.
Paragraph transitions generally need to be more robust than those between sentences. This can mean that ‘this + summary word’ becomes ‘this + summary phrase’, where the phrase is a fuller indication of what was discussed in the previous paragraph. It also means that transition words are often out of place in paragraph transitions precisely because they create such close relationships. There are, of course, exceptions to this, but as a general rule words or phrases like ‘however’, ‘in other words’, or ‘furthermore’ may puzzle the reader when they appear at the start of the paragraph; at the very least, they may send the reader back to the previous paragraph, which is not generally the direction in which you want to be pointing your reader.
Transitions between sections are a different issue again. Transitions between sections can be made in several ways: at the end of one section, at the beginning of another, or at an earlier point at which an overall structure is created. (For instance, a writer may say that they are going to consider a certain topic from three different perspectives. The reader will then be fine with three independent sections without any explicit transitions between them.) One simple piece of advice for section transitions: do not rely on the section headings to accomplish the transition for you. As a rule of thumb, I suggest reading through section (and sub-section) headings as though they were not there; not that they should actually be removed, but rather that the author should make sure that transitions are accomplished in the text, not through headings.
Overall, creating flow in our writing ought to be a priority because our readers need to experience the connection between our ideas in order to appreciate the value of those ideas. Moving past a reliance on transition words is one way to push ourselves to a deeper understanding of the linkages in our texts. And once we understand the links, we can structure our texts in ways that help our readers to see them too.
Contributor: Rachael Cayley is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Graduate Studies at the University of Toronto. Rachael has a blog about writing for graduate students, Explorations of Style and tweets at @explorstyle.