A sure-fire sign I’m dealing with an inexperienced writer is that a transition from one paragraph to another reads something like, “While the emphasis on thin models has led many to eating disorders, fat shaming is actually more important,” when a better transition would be, “However, fat shaming is actually more important.”
Purpose of Paragraph Transitions
Transitions are essential to making sense in a proposition or argument, so it’s little wonder that writers tend to get wordy with them. Transitions hold the entire proposal together, keeping your essay/report/letter/memo/dissertation from just sounding like a lot of unrelated ideas.
But transitions are really nothing more than a way to assure your reader that you’re not suddenly going off on a tangent or skipping to an unrelated topic. Many times, just a word or two will do.
New Topic, New Paragraph
The first rule of transitions between paragraphs is that new topics go at the beginning of new paragraphs, not at the end of paragraphs. You don’t spend half a page talking about how to find the perfect school for your kids and then tack on something about sports at the end.
Starting a new paragraph actually signals to the reader: new topic coming.
So let’s say I’m writing about the difficulties of cultural assimilation when moving to a new country. I have been talking about one difficulty, which is learning a new language. I now want to talk about the challenges of learning basic social interactions or manners. In my current paragraph on language, I do not say a word about manners. I finish the paragraph talking about language. Only at the beginning of the next paragraph do I mention manners.
And this is where people may feel the need to repeat the topic of the previous paragraph at the beginning of the new paragraph to “transition.”
Example: As difficult as learning a new language can be, an even greater challenge is learning everyday social graces.
Much better example: Yet an even greater challenge is learning everyday social graces.
Determine the Relationship
Because the reader has just read that previous paragraph, they will remember what you were talking about. The repetition is just annoying. The goal isn’t to hover over the reader and gently lower them into your new topic; it’s to show the relationship between the previous paragraph/topic and the new paragraph/topic.
In this case, the relationship is that learning manners is another challenge in cultural assimilation. A transition word that expresses this relationship is “also.”
Example: Learning everyday social graces is also a challenge.
When transitioning to your new paragraph, figure out the relationship between the previous topic and the next. Then select a word or two that identifies that relationship and put it somewhere in the first sentence of the new paragraph. It need not be at the start of the sentence.
Is the relationship that of an additional factor?
Example: We can see the effectiveness of exercise even more when we consider cardiovascular benefits.
Is the relationship that of contrast?
Example: To see better ROI, however, the brick-and-mortar client should consider e-commerce.
Is the relationship that of fine-tuning the idea?
Example: Now we must ask ourselves what precisely we mean when we demand personal freedom.
Is the relationship that of considering the topic from another angle?
Example: Galileo turned such beliefs upside down by actually demonstrating the behavior of objects rather than relying on theory.
Think Signposts, Not Bridges
Paragraph transitions are often described as “bridges” between topics, but that may be precisely what is leading the writer to think they have to drag the old topic into the new paragraph. Transitions actually work more like signposts, pointing the way to the new idea.
Think: “You already know what I was talking about, so now go this way (also, however, specifically, alternatively) to the new idea.”
Next time: transitions inside paragraphs.
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