Writing AdviceWriting, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated
2018

How to Use Transition Words Effectively

PrecisionEdit

"Choppy!" "How is this related?" "Flow needs work!" Have you ever received comments like these on your paper from professors or editors? If so, it is highly likely that you need to work on transition words and phrases to help bridge ideas and allow the flow of your writing to move in a more logical, coherent path. That coherency is what separates good writing from bad writing.

Problems with transitions in writing often happen in the following scenarios:

  • You're working on a group project and need to combine "chunks" of writing from multiple students to make one paper or presentation. So, they give you their separate writing and leave it up to you to put it all together.
  • You begin your writing without an outline to follow in the writing process.
  • You write your paragraphs out of order when writing an essay or story, because you don't want to start with the hard stuff—hooks, introductions, and conclusions.

So how do you fix the problem? Consider these tips for using transitional words and phrases the way they're meant to be used.

Know the purpose of transitions in writing

I start with this tip because you have to know the purpose before you can learn the rules. Transitional words and phrases are not only a way to present your ideas logically—they are also a vital part of the writing process and can't be ignored. Whether you're writing for an academic assignment or writing a fictional novel, without mastering how to transition from one thought to another, or one paragraph to another, your writing will be confusing, at best. And this is regardless of the amount of time and effort you put into researching or preparation beforehand. At worst, a lack of proper transitioning between thoughts or steps will make your writing a jumbled, incomprehensible mess that is impossible for your reader to follow (and therefore likely to result in a less-than-stellar grade or college admission denial letter).

Understand that logic is essential, especially in academic writing

The second point you need to know is that transition words (also known as conjunctive adverbs) are necessary in almost every genre of writing to form a logical narrative or argument. Really, there's no way to escape them. The only categories of writing that might not need transitions would fall into the poetry genre. As mentioned above, using the correct transition—whether in a single word or a phrase—is important for building logic into your paper or moving your story along.

Even in our daily speech, we use transition words and phrases in our communication with others to change topics, tell a story, or even recount the events that occurred throughout our day. "So" "then," and "finally" are just a few examples of commonly used transitions within our daily speech. Here's an example of a teenager accounting for his whereabouts:

Mom: Where have you BEEN all day?? I was so worried.
Teen: Mom, you have to listen, it wasn't my fault.
Mom: So, whose fault was it?
Teen: First, our bus was late leaving the school then we got caught in traffic. There were wrecks or something blocking the freeway for miles. For that reason, we turned around and went back to the school; but there was traffic there too!

As you can see from the underlined transitions, without them, the teen would surely be grounded.

Realize that there are categories and learn them

Transition words and phrases include several categories of transitions, and there are over 200 words and phrases that can be used for purposes of transitioning within your writing. These words are divided into categories based on the logical flow of your writing. There are different reasons for using transitions—sometimes to move the writing along, sometimes to show contrast, etc. For example, if you are using transition words to clarify, you'd choose transitions like "to put it another way," or "to rephrase." If you are using them to move time along in a plot or research study, you'd use words like "then," "once," "next," etc.

The differences between these categories and when to use each are nuanced, as are the differences between the words within each category. Expert writers might easily know which transition category and word/phrase to use. However, non-native writers are likely to have a less developed understanding of the nuances of each, simply because they have not had enough experience with the language to recognize the subtle differences. These things take time to learn.

Below are the common categories in which transitional words and phrases are used, and some example words for each. If you use different sources, you'll find that they may provide different categories (or arrangement of categories), but each place transitions into categories of purpose.

Take the following example from the Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin—Madison.

Addition

Furthermore, moreover, too, also, in the second place, again, in addition, even more, next, further, last, lastly, finally, besides, and, or, nor, first, second, secondly, etc.

Time

While, immediately, never, after, later, earlier, always, when, soon, whenever, meanwhile, sometimes, in the meantime, during, afterwards, now, until now, next, following, once, then, at length, simultaneously, so far, this time, subsequently

Place

Here, there, nearby, beyond, wherever, opposite to, adjacent to, neighboring on, above, below

Exemplification or illustration

To illustrate, to demonstrate, specifically, for instance, as an illustration, e.g. (for example), for example

Comparison

In the same way, by the same token, similarly, in like manner, likewise, in similar fashion

Contrast

Yet, and yet, nevertheless, nonetheless, after all, but, however, though, otherwise, on the contrary, in contrast, notwithstanding, on the other hand, at the same time

Clarification

That is to say, in other words, to explain, i.e. (that is), to clarify, to rephrase it, to put it another way

Cause

Because, since, on account of, for that reason

Effect

Therefore, consequently, accordingly, thus, hence, as a result

Purpose

In order that, so that, to that end, to this end, for this purpose

Qualification

Almost, nearly, probably, never, always, frequently, perhaps, maybe, although

Intensification

Indeed, to repeat, by all means, of course, certainly, without doubt, yes, no, undoubtedly, in fact, surely, in fact

Concession

To be sure, granted, of course, it is true

Summary

To summarize, in sum, in brief, to sum up, in short, in summary

Conclusion

In conclusion, to conclude, finally

Demonstratives acting as transitions

This, those, these, that

Transition mistakes to avoid

Now that you know the purposes and situations in which to use transitional words, let's take a moment to look at mistakes to avoid when writing. While transition words and phrases are necessary to make your writing coherent, the misuse of them can result in the exact opposite, leaving your reader confused and unable to understand your point (or story). Here are some common mistakes that professors and editors often find regarding the use of transition words.

Illogical transitions

If the ultimate aim of using transition words is to bring logic to your writing, then using illogical transitions defeats the purpose. As I previously pointed out, each transition word or phrase has its own nuanced meaning and belongs to its own category. Using the wrong one can further confuse the point you are trying to make, or the relationship you need to show for it to make sense to your reader.

Here's an example:

Aliya was one of the most gracious hostesses I have ever met. However, she spoke with each person in the room, calling them by name, and smiling the whole time.

In the above example, we can clearly see the use of the transition word "however," followed correctly by a comma to separate it from the rest of the sentence. However, since the word chosen is a transition word denoting contrast, the lack of logic in these sentences creates confusion for the reader.

Here's why. In the first sentence, we are given a statement about Aliya being a gracious hostess. In the second sentence, we are given a reason why or example of why she deserves this praise. The use of the transition word "however" between the two causes confusion, because the second sentence illustrates the first, or provides an example of the first.

Looking then into the Exemplification and illustration category of common transition words and phrases, we see that a better choice for transitioning between the two sentences would be "for example," or "to illustrate." The incorrect transition ("however") doesn't fit because it belongs to the Contrast category, which means the second sentence is contrasting the first—which of course, isn't true in this case.

Here's another example of this same mistake being made in an academic paper:

The study's participants were chosen by the random sampling method and were given questionnaires about their experiences with social media. In other words, the sample population submitted their responses to be included in the data.

As can be seen from the example above, the two sentences are connected together by time, as in one event (the second sentence) occurring after the other (the first sentence). The transition word chosen, however, is from the Clarification category instead of the Time category, leaving the reader with a confusing statement to sort out.

Transition overuse

The final mistake to avoid is overuse. Editors see this mistake often, mainly because the writer's language skills are limited and do not yet include knowledge of the proper use of transitions. Using too many transitions can cause your writing to be difficult to read, since they are essentially road signs showing your reader how the content is moving forward. Using too many at once would be like coming to a 4-way stop that included hundreds of signs—some saying stop, some saying yield, but all putting out a different message.

Here's an example of transition overuse:

Arcadia was a town like any other. Therefore, the police patrolled the streets, the shopkeepers kept their shops, and children attended school on account of three weeks until summer break. For example, when a stranger walks through Arcadia, everyone notices; however, it was the secret to keeping their town well protected. In such, while adults spoke to each other in hurried conversations, at the same time, their eyes were always scanning to make sure things were going as normal there.

So, what was the first thing you noticed while reading this passage? Was it the way the words interrupted the story unnecessarily? Did those transition words hurt instead of help make the paragraph clear and coherent?

The mistake of using too many transitions and transitional phrases often occurs when someone is trying to "beef up" their writing. Transitions like "however," "for example," and "in such" seem somehow academic, and must make your writing sound more cultured or professional, right?

Wrong.

Overusing transitions creates distracting, incoherent writing that does not serve the intended purpose of the transitions in the first place, which is to move the story along.

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