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.