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Why transitions are important in writing

transitions are like bridges

Just a few days ago, I received an email from a fellow writer, and I opened it right away. It was one of his business newsletters, which are almost always interesting or thought-provoking.

His writing is usually excellent as well.

But this time, something was wrong. After reading only a few lines, I became frustrated. And halfway through the short email, I clicked it shut and shook my head.

My brain was fried. I knew what it was about from the subject line and the first few sentences, but for some reason I felt dizzy, confused, and annoyed.

An hour later, I tried reading the email again to figure out what the problem was. Same thing: frustration, confusion, bewilderment. Then I looked at it from an editor’s point of view and relaxed.

No typos. No misspellings. No grammatical mistakes. No punctuation errors. Perfect.

But something wasn’t right. I drummed my fingers on my chin and bit my lip. What could it be?

I’ve felt baffled over a piece of writing in a similar way before… Then I saw it.

In this short email, 21 single sentences formed the paragraphs, such as they were.

Short, simple sentences were separated by line breaks even though many of them, when examined as a group, actually represented one idea. Some that would ordinarily be joined by commas to make one sentence—rather than stand alone with just a few words each—were also separated by line breaks.

I didn’t understand. It sort of looked like freestyle poetry, which I love. But informational emails (or blog posts or any kind of non-fiction writing) aren’t poetry. Not even close. But that’s what the length of the sentences and the line breaks appeared to suggest.

Internet writing means short paragraphs

Over the last few years, an Internet writing trend to keep paragraphs short and to the point has emerged and become popular. And I applaud it. I write that way myself, as you can see. But it takes some serious thinking to make it work.

And it’s especially challenging to write even a short piece in a format of one sentence per line. Feels like torture, if you ask me. Like writing my life story in iambic pentameter.

But back to the matter at hand: how could that confusing email be improved?

By using transitions.

Transitions are like bridges that connect sentences and paragraphs

Transitions are words or phrases that carry the reader from one idea to the next. They help a reader see the connection or relationship between ideas and, just as important, transitions also prevent sudden, jarring mental leaps between sentences and paragraphs.

To illustrate: Do you know anyone who tends to change the subject suddenly during a conversation? I do, and it’s disorienting. It seems like a sudden thought pops into their head, and they blurt it out without any sort of closure to the original topic or introduction to the next.

It’s usually a WTF moment, and it’s very confusing.

Writing presents the same challenge. As one subject or idea concludes, the next subject or concept must be introduced smoothly. And that’s what transitions are for.

Transitions indicate time, examples, exceptions, comparisons, and sequences plus a whole lot more. Just now I repeated “transitions,” for example, from the previous paragraph to hold the thought in your head and let you know we’re still talking directly about transitions.

Are you with me?

Many words can serve as transitions (see, we’re still on transitions so I repeated it). Some of the most common or obvious transitions are words or phrases like first, second, then, later, afterward, suddenly, at this point, a few days later, nevertheless, however, and so on.

Even simple words like and or but serve as transitions. The word even at the beginning of this paragraph is a transition, too. So is too.

Improve your writing by using transitions

By adding a few transitions to those 21 short sentences that short-circuited my already busy brain, that email could have been so much better.

But writing something in a format of one sentence per line is no easy task for even the best writer, and I recommend combining sentences into short paragraphs of 2-4 sentences each when ideas are related. Varying the length of the sentences also makes reading more enjoyable.

And don’t hesitate to throw in a few one-liners here and there for emphasis.

Now it’s true that I’m a fussy editor who wonders whether anal retentive should have a hyphen or not, and I’m not like many Internet readers with supposedly short attention spans. I actually read every single word when I expect the message has something to offer. Or at least I try.

And maybe some readers skim easily over the same writing that bogs me down. But more times than not, if I’m having trouble reading something, others are too.

Without a doubt, using some transitional words or phrases would change that frustrating email from, well, an exercise in frustration to an interesting minute or two of reading.

Comments are always welcome.

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7 comments… add one
  • This is fascinating, Leah.

    When I look back at some of my earlier posts I always edit them to include transitions. I don’t know why I used to write so many one liners but as soon as I see them in my old posts, I cringe with embarrassment.

    Just goes to show how I’m learning all the time… and how much there is to learn. Thanks for this! I’ve added ‘transitions’ to my Better Writing Tips list!
    Linda recently posted…Who Else Envies That Amazing Green Sports Car?My Profile

    Reply
    • Thanks Linda,

      So many little aspects of writing, aren’t there? Glad this one spoke to you.

      And I know what you mean about cringing! But we’re constantly growing and improving our writing, so we should pat ourselves on the back for how far we’ve come 🙂
      Leah McClellan recently posted…Why transitions are important in writingMy Profile

      Reply
  • I have to own up to the same reality in placing words in a manner that provoked unlimited frustrations. Internet writing is very challenging with not only including transitions but doing so with the least number of words. I’ve been backing away from recklessly sharing my thoughts so fast now and thinking more about how to write something that would make sense with the least amount of words which include transitions.

    Reply
    • Hey Ken,

      Sounds like a good plan. It’s always good to think before we write anywhere online because it’s usually kind of permanent. And keeping our writing concise is always a good thing. Then again, the length depends on the topic. Sometimes it’s not possible to fully develop a point of view or concept without writing something lengthy.

      Reply
  • Leah,

    My high school sophomores could benefit from your article. May I use it in my classroom?

    Kathy Harrison

    Reply
    • Hi Kathy,

      Sure, I’m honored that you want to use this in your classroom. This is a real-life application of writing skills that can answer that never-ending question “Why do we have to take English?” Enjoy, and thanks for asking! 🙂

      Reply
  • I’ve been studying the use of transitions, however, I have noticed that some of the best writers, like Chuck Palahniuk, rarely use transitional phrases in his novels. In fact, his short, crisp sentences are packed with meaning that a transitional word could never convey. For instance, his novel, Pygmy, where his character uses words like “wham pow” or “zing ring” or “twist snap” conveying action keeps you right there with the running dialogue of his life.

    In fact, in many of his books, each of his words seem to have such precise meaning that if he has transitional phrases they are seamless.

    Am I missing something here? I always thought in novel writing, the idea was to remove transitional words and punch out the ideas. Especially in dialogue. And, I was under the impression that transitional phrases were best left to academia.

    Now, I’m wondering if I’ve confused something. I tend to use transitional words when speaking, but in my fiction, I like a more up-in-your-face effect. Help?

    Reply

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