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.