Power Tools: Transitions


The following section was originally part of Power Tools for Technical Writing, published by Harcourt, but taken out because of length considerations. This section was part of a chapter made up of the following:
  1. Content—provides strategies for thinking of useful content for writing projects, in other words, developing the content of a project.
  2. Organization—provides strategies for reviewing the sequence and arrangement of the contents of a writing project.
  3. Transitions—provides review strategies for checking the coherence of a writing project, in other words, the "flow" of the project as created by the transitions.

As a writer, you need transitions to emphasize the logic and "connectedness" of the parts of your discussion, to guide readers through your discussion, showing them where they've been, where they're headed, and how it's all related.

How Do You Tie It All Together—Make It Flow?

It's possible to write something that has plenty of good information, that is nicely suited for the intended readers, and that is well organized—but that still causes readers problems. The problem may lie with transitions. Transitions are writing tools that guide readers through the parts of a document, telling them where they are, where they are going, and how it's all related.

As writers, sometimes we overestimate readers' ability to understand the connections and see the relationships of the parts of a discussion. But nothing should be left to readers to figure out on their own. As writers, we need to "do it all" for our readers—be obsessive in our efforts to ensure they see the main points and the logic connecting them. Often, this means strengthening transitions.

Review of Transition Tools

First of all, what's a transition? It's any writing technique that somehow indicates the relationship of one chunk of text to another (a part of a sentence, a sentence, a paragraph, a whole section or chapter). Strong transitions do so by indicating the logic connecting the preceding text, to the current text, and to the upcoming text. Here's a review of the different kinds of logic transitions indicate:

Transition logic Example words and phrases
Additive and, also, in addition, moreover
Elaborative, reiterative specifically, to be precise, in fact, in other words, that is
(Usually when you restate something, you are actually providing more detail—elaborating on the topic.)
Summative in summary, in conclusion, generally
Introductory To begin with
Concluding In conclusion
Contrastive but, on the other hand, otherwise
Alternative or
Temporal then, next, before, when, after, until, while
Spatial under, over, beside, in front of, next to, above
Causal because, therefore, as a result
Illustrative for example, for instance

There are a dozen or so transition tools that you can use to indicate relationships in your writing. Some are so obvious that you don't even have to think to use them. Here's a review of transitions you can use in your writing, arranged according to increasing strength:

Transition tool Description
Repeated key words The simplest, weakest transition tool. You cannot write coherently on a topic without repeating key words.
Pronouns Another weak form of transition. Once you've established a topic, you can refer to it with pronouns (it, this, which, and so on).
Transition signals Indicators of the logic connecting preceding and upcoming information. Words like therefore, on the other hand, for example, in other words, because, then, afterwards are good transition tools at the sentence and paragraph level.
Review words Powerful tools that link larger chunks of information—groups of sentences or whole paragraphs. They condense preceding discussion into a brief word or phrase. For example, you've just completed a detailed discussion of the greenhouse effect. Moving on to the next topic, you could use review words like "this heat-trapping process" to refer back to that discussion.
Preview words (overviews) Powerful tools that condense the upcoming discussion into a brief word or phrase. For example, you've just explained how heat is trapped in the earth's atmosphere. Moving on to the theory that humans are adding to that effect, you could use preview words "sources of additional CO2 in the atmosphere" to point forward to this discussion.
Transition sentences The strongest transition tool, indicating the connection between the preceding and the upcoming. For example, you've just discussed how much CO2 humans have added to the atmosphere. You are moving on to discuss the effects. A strong transition between the two sections might sound like this: "These large amounts of CO2 added to the atmosphere may lead to a number of disastrous consequences for residents of planet Earth." The review words are "These large amounts of CO2 added to the atmosphere"; preview words, "number of disastrous consequences"; the transition words, "may lead to."

Strategies for Strengthening Transitions

In a nutshell, when you review transitions, you look at the intersection between chunks of text, identify the logical connection between them, check for the transitions actually used, then consider whether stronger ones might be better:

Review transitions at the whole-document level (between sections). Just as in an organization review, you review transitions "top-down," working down from the largest segments of the document to the smallest. At the whole-document level, you check those junction points between the major for transitional words that indicate how the preceding section relates to the upcoming one.

Consider the five main sections of the extended definition of nanotechnology:

Now that you've analyzed the document for transitions connecting its top-level sections, see if any of the stronger transition techniques will improve matters.

Even though the topic may seem bewildering, the document has a nice obvious flow to it, moving from the basics, to the applications, to the question "when?" You could revise the overview sentence in the introduction to read this way: "The following further explores the basic idea of this new technology and its applications." The repeated keywords "basic idea" would then be echoed in the first sentence after the heading "Manufacturing Technologies: Current and Future." Similarly, the first sentence after the heading "Molecular Manufacturing: Essential Components," could be revised to say "Merkle identifies several concepts essential to the molecular-manufacturing method." Doing so would echo the frequent use of the keyword "method" in the preceding section.

Review transitions within sections (between subsections). The process is the same as you move down through progressively smaller chunks of a document. Depending on the size of the document, a "subsection" might consist of numerous paragraphs, or just a single paragraph. In the nanotechnology definition, the subsections are individual paragraphs. Review the transitions "hooking" these paragraphs to each other within sections:

Review transitions within paragraphs (between sentences). Depending on the size of the document, you eventually reach the paragraph level. Consider the transitions connecting the sentences within each paragraph as well.

Consider the paragraph in the nanotechnology definition beginning with the words "A good example that contrasts the two manufacturing methods is lithography." The word "contrasts" acts as a preview that we're going to read a comparison of the two methods. The next sentence repeats the keyword "lithography," adding further detail on this manufacturing method. The next sentence uses the transition word "Despite" to alert us to a contrast. The phrase "'post-lithographic manufacturing process" keeps the contrast going. And then "it" is a simple pronoun referring to the keyword "nanotechnology." At the sentence level, you see numerous transition words such as "otherwise," "but," "just as," "instead," "and," and so on.

Reviewing a document this way can also seem tedious. However, if you practice this strategy for reviewing for transitions a few times, it will become an almost automatic way to look at documents when you review them. Take a look at the following excerpt on quantum mechanics: you may not know a thing about quantum mechanics, or even physics, but you can see how the transitions work:

Workshop—Transitions

For practice and workshop material, see the transition exercises.

Also, see the topic sentences to get some practice identifying topic sentences and their elements and selecting topic sentences for paragraphs.


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