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Jan's New Writing Lessons--TRANSITIONS

Posted: Mon Jul 22, 2013 7:00 am
by glorybee
A piece of writing is said to have “flow” if, among other things, there is a good transition between paragraphs. This is particularly true when writing nonfiction, where transition can be achieved in any of several ways.

First, you should have a list of good transitional words and phrases in your arsenal. When I was preparing to write this lesson, I googled “transitional words” and found several sites that contain such lists, and I recommend that you do the same thing. These words and phrases can be very useful, and you should incorporate them into your writing. However, I have a few cautions for you:

1. Don’t use transitional words in a predictable or formulaic way. One of my jobs is to grade high school students’ essays for standardized state writing tests. It is very obvious to me that many of those students have been taught to write “The 5-Paragraph Essay” in which the first paragraph introduces three topics, the next three paragraphs expound upon one topic each, and the final paragraph summarizes and concludes. These essays are all remarkably similar, and they use some of the transitional words and phrases found on the lists you’ll get online. First, second, third, in conclusion…There’s nothing wrong with this formula, but the fact that it’s taught in high schools should tell you something. If you write like this, your writing may seem high school-like, too.

2. Make sure that you understand the subtle differences in meaning between some of these words and phrases. Don’t use “additionally” when you mean “likewise,” for example.

3. Don’t begin every paragraph by using a transitional word or phrase.

4. If you use a transitional word or phrase, be sure to properly punctuate it (usually with a comma—but not always).

If you don’t want to begin every paragraph with a transitional phrase, you can write a sentence that refers to the topic of the previous paragraph, then adds a new dimension. Notice that I’ve done that exact thing here; my previous paragraph begins with “First…” (a transitional word) and goes on to discuss transitional words and phrases. My second paragraph refers to those transitional phrases, then goes on to the next topic.

I’ve looked through some nonfiction material for an example of this second kind of transition, and here’s one that appeals to me, from Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way, by Bill Bryson. He writes a paragraph in chapter 10 about the total number of words used in well-known works such as the Bible and the works of Shakespeare. The following paragraph begins like this:

“One glaring problem with even the most scrupulous tabulation is that the total number of words used by an author doesn’t begin to tell us the true size of his vocabulary.”

The “…scrupulous tabulation” bit refers to the previous paragraph, and the “…true size of his vocabulary” bit is the topic of the new paragraph.

I’ve done it again with my paragraph that begins “I’ve looked through…” The first part of that sentence is transition, referring to what I’ve already said. The second part of that sentence is new stuff.

Another kind of transition is achieved by using synonyms or pronouns in the new paragraph that refer to words in the previous one. This trick, by the way, is also quite appropriate in fiction. Here are two examples, one from nonfiction and one from fiction.

From More Best, Worst, and Most Unusual, by Fenton and Fowler:

“In 1971, jazz composer Roger Calloway wrote a modern ballet…The work premiered at Lincoln Center...and as soon as the audience heard the opening bars, they got the joke.

The basic theme for the twenty-two minute score was borrowed from [an] overplayed television jingle…”

The synonyms are highlighted here: opening bars and score. Those words tie the two paragraphs together in a seamless transition.

From The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, by Shaffer and Barrows:

…It was made of some kind of French clay and lay like a dead thing in the washtub. It made no lather—you just had to scrub and hope it worked.

Being clean was hard work, and we had all got used to being more or less dirty, along with our clothes…”

Again, I’ve highlighted the synonyms that tie the paragraphs together.

Finally, you can transition from one paragraph to the next by simply repeating a word or phrase. The following is from Walt Disney World and Orlando for Dummies.

If you have young kids or a soft spot for vintage Disney, make your way to this WDW signature park first. The Magic Kingdom is the most popular of Mickey’s enterprises, attracting more than 40,000 people a day…

Proof of the staying power of the Magic Kingdom is the fact that the park has changed little over the years…

And that’s enough to say about transition, except to add this caveat (which will be true for all of these lessons): Writing is more art than science, and it’s best not to be too tightly tied to the ‘rules.’ Learn the rules and master them, but then don’t be afraid to branch out and break them.

1. Look through various writings to find examples of each of the four kinds of transitions here. (If you do this, you don't have to post them here. This is for your own benefit.) OR…

2. Choose ONE of the kinds of transitions that I’ve mentioned, and write TWO PARAGRAPHS ONLY, in which the second paragraph has a smooth transition from the first. Please, please, please keep these short; I really don’t have time to critique lengthy writings on this thread. But if you write nice, short paragraphs and submit them as a response to this post, I’ll respond to each one. OR…

3. Ask me a question, if there’s anything unclear here.

I welcome additional examples of kinds of transitions that I haven’t covered, and additional ideas for future lessons.

Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--TRANSITIONS

Posted: Mon Jul 22, 2013 6:04 pm
by oursilverstrands
Jan, I think I used this one:

"Another kind of transition is achieved by using synonyms or pronouns in the new paragraph that refer to words in the previous one."

In my second paragraph, I referred to the fuzz on my upper lip to the change is the last sentence of the first paragraph. I also may have used another transitional "trick" by using the sentences in paragraph two to expand on the words in paragraph one: Ex. thickened waistlines and dropping pounds. Let me know if that's also good example of transitioning. And is using more than one method considered overkill?

Thanks for a great lesson that's so fundamental to improved writing.

One of the few things I dislike about reunions with friends not seen in a long time is the erasing of an image that's tied to one's youth. Wrinkles, thickened waistlines, and thinning, gray hair permanently erase the picture of the person I remembered. And I'm forced to address the changes they must surely see in me.

Does the fuzz on my upper lip show, too? After the hugs and kisses, I make a silent vow to drop at least ten pounds, and to never miss my two month appointment at the hairdresser. In my opinion, gray hair is not only a sign of wisdom, but a sign of wearing years. And lip hairs along with lipose in excess is a red flag for letting go or giving up. Whether it be the passing of time or what I see because of it, connecting with old friends forces me to change my image of them and me.



Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--TRANSITIONS

Posted: Mon Jul 22, 2013 7:56 pm
by glorybee
Lillian, your paragraphs are beautifully written, and you have analyzed them correctly yourself. So well, in fact, that I've got nothing to add!

I'm curious whether I addressed whatever questions you may have had about writing transitions between paragraphs when you suggested this topic. Is there anything I missed?

Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--TRANSITIONS

Posted: Tue Jul 23, 2013 12:20 am
by RachelM
Thank you for the lesson, Jan! About a month ago I started studying the science of writing, and at first it completely overwhelmed me. Much of it is beginning to make sense now. I'll keep checking out your lessons. This is exactly what I need!

Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--TRANSITIONS

Posted: Tue Jul 23, 2013 10:16 am
by Colswann1
Thanks for the lesson Jan. I copied a list of transition words and your notes for future reference.

Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--TRANSITIONS

Posted: Tue Jul 23, 2013 2:48 pm
by choosingjoy
In the midst of rapidly increasing technology and social media, it is surprising to learn that many people confess to a sense of loneliness. Some express it as feeling “cut off from the world.”

This growing problem of isolation has led to various studies in both secular and Christian settings. Findings show that, while seclusion may be self-imposed, it is often a result of the world’s rapid pace, in which people become unaware of others’ needs.

Jan, I think this qualifies as "transitioning." I have to confess, though, I sometimes struggle with where to end a paragraph and begin a new one. It seems like a fine line to me sometimes. Am I the only one? :?

Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--TRANSITIONS

Posted: Tue Jul 23, 2013 3:19 pm
by oursilverstrands
glorybee wrote:
I'm curious whether I addressed whatever questions you may have had about writing transitions between paragraphs when you suggested this topic. Is there anything I missed?

Jan, you absolutely answered my questions. Then, too, I'm not sure I would call them questions. I had no specific principles to transition purposefully, and often wrote by instinct or luck. Your lesson provided the framework for the how and why and eliminated the guesswork.

I did ask earlier if there could be transitional "overkill" by using more than one transition method in the same paragraph? Or is there ever a need to do so?



Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--TRANSITIONS

Posted: Tue Jul 23, 2013 3:26 pm
by glorybee
Genia, your paragraphs demonstrate my second kind of transitioning very well.

As far as when to transition from one paragraph to the next: the broad rule, in nonfiction, is to transition when you are about to move from one topic to the next. In fiction, paragraphs switch when a new character speaks, or when a new action starts, or when the reader is directed elsewhere.

That having been said, sometimes readers' eyes tire when reading very long paragraphs in an uninterrupted block of text. If you find that your paragraph is running quite long, I'd recommend finding a place to break it up, even if the switch in directions is only a minor one.

And you're right--the line is sometimes a fine one. Luckily, changing to a new paragraph too often isn't a common error, and paragraphing is rarely something that significantly effects the reading experience. If paragraph changes are too frequent, the writing may seem choppy; if they are not frequent enough, the writing may seem tedious. But paragraphing, for most writers, is almost instinctual, and as an editor, I don't find many paragraphing errors.

In fiction, I think it's best to have paragraphs of widely different lengths--from one sentence (even just one word) to several. In non-fiction, I think paragraphs might tend to be more equal in length, but I'd never go so far as to say 'paragraphs should have precisely five sentences' (or any other number).

I hope that answered your question...

Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--TRANSITIONS

Posted: Tue Jul 23, 2013 3:47 pm
by glorybee
Lillian, I'd definitely say that using too much of the first type of transitions is likely to make your writing seem formulaic and dull. Even if you go beyond the 'first, second, third, in conclusion' types of transitions, beginning every paragraph with a transitional phrase followed by a comma and some new information just isn't particularly exciting writing.

The other types of transitions make for a more natural flow in your writing, and also give you opportunity to use more interesting words than for this any rate...most importantly...

Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--TRANSITIONS

Posted: Tue Jul 23, 2013 4:28 pm
by choosingjoy
Yes, you did answer my question ivery well. I think the key help was the word instinctual that you used. I usually change paragraphs when I "feel" that it needs to be done. I can have a bit more confidence about it now. lol

The flow of paragraphs is so important, and I also will be more aware of those transition words you listed, as well as synonyms. :thankssign ...again

Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--TRANSITIONS

Posted: Tue Jul 23, 2013 9:17 pm
by Shann
Would introducing a new speaker be a transition? I did try to repeat words with the same meaning in atrocious and horrible. Perhaps I'm rushing things and that isn't a transition but more of a rule about when to start a new paragraph?

Lily Stomped her foot as she waved her finger in Lisa's face. "I can't believe you would do such an atrocious thing!"

Rolling her eyes, Lisa said, "Me? What about the horrible stuff you did?"

Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--TRANSITIONS

Posted: Tue Jul 23, 2013 9:40 pm
by glorybee
Shann, most of the rules in my original post really apply more to nonfiction than to fiction. The one that I mentioned could be used in fiction (the one with using synonyms) is really more for passages of narrative than passages of dialogue. In dialogue-heavy passages, as you noted, the paragraph switches with each change of speaker.

In fact, dialogue need not have transitions at all, as it is supposed to sound realistic, with the speakers bouncing their lines of dialogue off each other. Very few people in real life would analyze what they'd just heard to find a synonym so that the transition is smooth. Dialogue is often choppy for that very reason--and that's desirable.

Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--TRANSITIONS

Posted: Wed Aug 07, 2013 2:06 pm
by GeraldShuler
Jan, this sample is from an editorial I wrote a few months ago. I was just wondering if you thought different transitions could have been chosen, and for what reasons. Your classes are an incredible encouragement to writers. Thank you for your time and effort.

As a Christian newspaper publisher, I am always looking for articles to print that reflect the morals, respect and principles for which I live my life. There have been times an article was submitted that almost qualified but some statement was made that convinced me to reject the entire article. The more I check out the articles submitted, the more I realize what a confused, gullible, deceived world we live in.

Let me give a case in point. I received a remarkable email submission about a statement made publicly by the Prime Minister of Australia. Some of the quotes were: “I am tired of this nation worrying about whether we are offending some individual or their culture”... “Most Australians believe in God. This is not some Christian, right wing, political push, but a fact, because Christian men and women, on Christian principles, founded this nation, and this is clearly documented”... “If you aren’t happy here then LEAVE. We didn’t force you to come here. You asked to be here. So accept the country YOU accepted.”

Every one of these statements reflect my own feelings about America. I would loudly applaud the statements made by the Australian Prime Minister if it weren’t for one very important fact: She NEVER made these statements!

Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--TRANSITIONS

Posted: Wed Aug 07, 2013 2:57 pm
by glorybee
Jay, the transitions you used in this editorial are top notch. "Let me give a case in point" is a transitional phrase that refers to the previous paragraph and then leads the reader onward. "Every one of these statements..." does the same thing.

I can't think of a single thing that I'd recommend you do differently.


Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--TRANSITIONS

Posted: Sun Sep 08, 2013 6:33 pm
by amilli
Very enlightening. In addition, another transition technique is using a sentence. That is, making the last sentence in the last paragraph a lead (or connecting sentence) into what the next paragraph will be about. Let me give it a shot:

I have truly made some tremendous discoveries since I have visited Jan's Writing Basic on the board index. Some of the skills discussed here I have already been practicing, but great clarifications has been provided as well. Participating in the discussions had also stirred a lot of questions.

One such question that immediately comes to mind is finding out if it's obvious to tell in an article when an author is purposely breaking writing rules by choice? It is advice that writers seek to know the rules but they shouldn't be afraid to break them.

PS: It's an example...but a serious question too! :)