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How To Create Transitions


 How To Create Effective Transitions in Essay Writing

 The Power of a Natural and Logical Flow


       The crazy thing about transitions is that we are already masters of transitions. All of us have been practicing and perfecting a natural and logical flow for as long as we have been speaking. So whats the big deal when trying to employ effective transitions in our writing?

In all of my years of teaching and writing, no one has really defined what a paragraph is that has left me feeling like “Whoa, now I know!”  When I write, I create  new paragraph whenever it “feels” like a paragraph is needed. Where and how that “feeling” happens is the fodder for debate.

For the most part, my shifts are pretty much in line with accepted paragraph usage. I transition to a new paragraph when my thoughts shift in a new direction or there is a change—often even a very slight change—in mood and tone. Sometimes, I’ll even just hang a sentence out in space to give the reader a break or a pause for thought, but never as a break or pause for the writer, which would be like stopping in the middle of a conversation just because you want to rest. 

As humans we have a great intuitive sense for how to complete a thought, how to move to a new thought, and how to end a conversation with some degree of grade and normality. A good writer develops the confidence to trust that intuition; a bad teacher hyper-analyzes it.

The annoying thing is that most of us have been taught (usually by that hyper analyzing teacher) that transitions are some kind of visible and mechanical bridge, and without the bricks and mortar of that bridge an essay will fall to pieces and crumble into a disarray of babbled words and incoherency. 

Not true! An essay falls apart when the unifying theme of the essay becomes unglued or weighted down by too much extraneous stuff—stuff that does nothing to further your essay, stuff that makes a reader say, “I have no idea what you are trying to say!”

Simply put: know your topic and stick to it. Everything else will fall into place.

There is an Irish story of twin brothers, one who was very studious and the other not studious at all. Their assignment in English was to write an essay about a pet. After the papers were graded, the teacher called the less studious brother aside and said in a chiding way: “ Your essay about your pet dog was exactly the same as your brother’s essay.” To which the he responded, “What did you expect? It’s the same damn dog.”

The point of that story? If the reader knows what you are writing about, and you stay more or less focused on that topic (or topics) your reader will not be confused by how you structure your paragraphs or craft your transitions between paragraphs. If it reads like a conversation from your head and heart, no lasting damage has been done to the fabric of the universe.

But it still might be a lousy essay. And maybe it is lousy because of the way you transitioned (or more than likely did not transition) between paragraphs. Maybe your essay resembles more of a trip down a mountain ski slope in an old VW Beetle with your little brother punching you in the arm and yelling “Punch Buggy” the whole way down the hill.

The bottom line is that an essay needs—as in really needs—a natural and confident flow. A reader needs to feel that the writer is in control from start to finish, and anything that interrupts that flow is more annoying than it is engaging; otherwise, your essay is doomed to that anonymous dropbox in the cloud where most essays go when they die.

So make your essay live. Don’t just write—breathe! Make your essays as alive as you are. Be real and write about what you know, and if you don’t know, don’t fake it—learn what you need to know, and then start writing. And opposed to what many teachers teach, use the voice that is most alive in your head—even if it is the dreaded “I” voice. It is, after all, you who are writing. Be real. Avoid words you don’t already know and use. You don’t want to be one of those “phoneys” that Holden Caulfield singles out in Catcher in the Rye. Be real because you really are real and no one is better than you at being you.

So easy for a wordy English teacher to preach, and I am not the one writing the essay (Oh my god, he used the I voice in an essay!) and you are not the one who assigned the writing prompt, but like Odysseus sailing into the Straits of Skylla, the only way out is through, so write you must.

My long-winded preamble is over, and now I will give you a few tricks to help you create transitions in a traditional five-paragraph essay or any kind of formal essay that might be graded in a traditional and rigorous way by the mighty red pen of academia.



 Technique #1: 
Connecting Thoughts


My little acronym is meant to sound like a Russian spaceship, but it is merely a disguise for the all of the hidden coordinating conjunctions—those cool little words that connect independent clauses to create longer compound sentences, and which tie together two or more “related” thoughts.

That’s the main point: “two or more related thoughts.”

Now here is my little trick: “If” you could (thought you won’t actually do it) add a conjunction to the end of one paragraph and lead into the opening line of the next paragraph you have created a logical transition—a bridge between paragraphs that a reader can cross to your new thought without falling into the roiling water of confusion.

For Example:

Huck Finn escapes society by escaping from his abusive father, but Jim seeks freedom from slavery for himself and his family.

The transition sentence at the end of the paragraph is:

Huck Finn escapes society by escaping from his abusive father.

The topic sentence or narrow theme of the next paragraph is:

Jim seeks freedom from slavery for himself and his family.




 Technique #2: 
Stealing & Thievery

Technique number two uses the coordinating conjunction trick and takes it one step further.

Steal a theme, a topic, an idea—or even just a word—from one body paragraph and use it to start your next paragraph.

For Example:

The cunning deceits of Odysseus help him overcome the trials he faces while trapped in the Cyclop’s cave, [but] without bravery, Odysseus  could never pull off his cunning plans.

The transition sentence at the end of the paragraph is:

The cunning deceits of Odysseus help him overcome the trials he faces while trapped in the Cyclop’s cave.

The topic sentence or narrow theme of the next paragraph is:

Without bravery, Odysseus  could never pull off his cunning plans.



 Technique #3: 
The Conjunctive Adverb Trick

Like a coordinating conjunction, conjunctive adverbs connect two or more related independent clauses—but even better, conjunctive adverbs show the relationship between those independent clauses.

Conjunctive adverbs are words and/or phrases like:

     accordingly,    furthermore,    moreover,       similarly,

     also,           hence,          namely,         still,

     anyway,         however,        nevertheless,   then,

     besides,        incidentally,   next,           thereafter,

     certainly,      indeed,         nonetheless,    therefore,

     consequently,   instead,        now,            thus,

     finally,        likewise,       otherwise,      undoubtedly,

     further,        meanwhile, in spite of, on the other hand,

     in contrast, on the contrary, ETC…

In the same way as techniques one and two, “if” you could put a conjunctive adverb at the end of a body paragraph and lead into the first sentence of the next paragraph, you have an effective transition—as long as you are using the conjunctive adverb correctly.

For Example:

In Walden, Thoreau urges us to live more simply and thoughtfully; moreover, Thoreau gives an example of his own life and his own idea of simplicity and thoughtfulness through his experiment on Walden Pond.

The transition sentence at the end of one body paragraph is:

In “Walden,” Thoreau urges us to live more simply and thoughtfully.

The opening sentence of the next paragraph is:

Thoreau gives an example of his own life and his own idea of simplicity and thoughtfulness through his experiment on Walden Pond.




Technique #4:
The Dangling Paragraph

This technique can save an essay from itself. Oftentimes, we have a paragraph or thought that is hard to connect to the next paragraph. The dangling paragraph comes to the rescue.

A dangling paragraph is a paragraph that is very brief compared to the body paragraphs it is sandwiched between. It’s effect on the reader is meant to be clear, concise and compelling—and even startling. It can be a statement, a question, or just a philosophical pondering. 

For Example:

     Because I can imagine myself sailing in a twilight breeze across Pleasant Bay, I will put up with these days of gluing, screwing and painting, varnishing and rigging my old sailboat. Sometimes I wish I had the money to just buy a boat that doesn’t need so much of my time, but like anything else in life that steals my time, I must figure it’s worth it—and it is. I do other things with my time where I don’t have the same clarity of purpose.  It is a rare moment of quiet in my house; the kids are all off with Denise somewhere, and though the grass is absurdly high; the van desperately needs an oil change, and the gutter is hanging by a twisted coat hanger, I sit here and force a few words out of emptiness. A part of me wants to show the folks in my writing communities that I practice what I endlessly preach to them—face the empty page! But it’s not that simple; I’ve been doing the same thing for almost thirty years, seldom with any goal but the action of writing itself.  

     Is it worth it?    [This is my “dangling paragraph!]

     Everything that I write returns to me obliquely. I’ve never written for a publication; I’ve never even tried to get anything published, save for a small book of poetry and a couple of CD’s. I’m a whiz when it comes to writing recommendations, and I can write a decent song or poem for any occasion, but I still can’t say that I write out of a labor of love or because I have some over-arching goal. I write because it gives purpose and meaning and clarity to my life. It stills me when I need to be still, and it roils me out of my ignorant slumber when I need to wake and see the light of day. Used wisely, writing humbles my arrogance and helps me open my arms and doors when I might otherwise retreat into a self-satisfied shell of complacency. It is worth a long day on the water to be there when the wind and tide help beat the way to a new harbor.



My goal with my short dangling paragraph was to shift my topic, and to get my readers to ask the question with me. It’s purpose is to get the reader to stop, read, rethink and shift gears—as in to redirect the topic of the next paragraph. It allows a writer to avoid an otherwise messy transition and move his or her essay in a new direction.

Make sense to you?

That last paragraph is an example of a another dangling paragraph! Used with care and discretion, it is an effective technique.

Used as a habit, it will soon become a bad habit.