Word Wise: Our Transitions, Ourselves

What’s wrong with this paragraph?

Transitions make writing flow smoothly. Transitions are words or phrases, sometimes whole paragraphs, that connect one idea to another. Usually (!), transitions come at the start of a sentence or paragraph. They may come in the middle or at the end. They guide your reader by revealing the logic behind the progression of thought. An overuse of transitions can confuse or distract readers. Avoid forcing a transition into every sentence. Paragraphs are another story. Unless you’re writing straight narrative—this happened, that happened—most paragraphs need transitions. Think of sentences and paragraphs as body parts. They are. Bodies need joints.

I wouldn’t call the paragraph bad, but it could use a few more transitions. Notice how much more smoothly the reading goes here.

Transitions make writing flow smoothly. Transitions are words or phrases, sometimes whole paragraphs, that connect one idea to another. Usually (!), transitions come at the start of a sentence or paragraph. They may, however, come in the middle or at the end. They guide your reader by revealing the logic behind the progression of thought. Since an overuse of transitions can confuse or distract readers, avoid forcing a transition into every sentence. Paragraphs are another story, though. Unless you’re writing straight narrative—this happened, that happened—most paragraphs need transitions. Think of sentences and paragraphs as body parts—because they are. And bodies need joints.

Use transitions often and fluidly, the way you use your elbows. (X-ray of the elbow courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, public domain.)

Use transitions often and fluidly, the way you use your elbows. (X-ray of the elbow courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, public domain.)

Think about your body. What if you had no elbows? What does an elbow do, after all? It holds your upper arm and forearm together while enabling you to move your hand from here to there. This all-important joint enables movement—movement so coordinated, so perfectly suited to the task that you don’t even notice it. Now you’re stroking your cat as it purrs in your lap, now you’re scratching your ear. While you think about other things, your elbows make your every move smooth.

Give your writing elbows.

In other words, use transitions to connect the various parts of your body text while supporting readers in moving, mentally, from here to there. If you use transitions wisely—naturally, logically, aptly—no one will notice them. But everyone will appreciate them.

How to create a transition

As you create your own transitions, let logic and your normal way of talking guide you. For small shifts, small movements in thought, you may need only a single word, like however. For larger shifts, you may need a sentence or paragraph that sums up where you’ve been and pivots to where you’re going.

For example, at one point in The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson uses a 47-word transitional sentence, highlighted here in yellow. Larson needs this whole sentence to ease readers away from the Saturday Afternoon Club scene and into the narrative’s next section.

Erik Larson frequently crafts long, masterful transitions to ease readers from one section of his book to another. You might not write best sellers, but if you ever need to shift directions within a piece of writing, your readers will appreciate your using as many words as necessary to make the shift.

Erik Larson frequently crafts long, masterful transitions to ease readers from one section of his book to another. You might not write best sellers, but if you ever need to shift directions within a piece of writing, your readers will appreciate your using as many words as necessary to make the shift.

Notice Larson’s pivot word, other. His sentence bends, elbow-like, right there.

How many other words and phrases (there’s other again) can writers use as pivots? Lots. Below you’ll find a sampling, 400 give or take. Adverbs, conjunctions, prepositions, pronouns. I’ve culled this list from various websites and from my own reading.

Given all these transition-creating pivot words—including given and these—why not use transitions often? Use them fluidly, the way you use your elbows.

Transitions. They do a body good.

Common Transitional Words and Phrases (by Category)

Addition | Cause and Effect | Clarification | Comparison (Similarity) | Concession | Conclusion | Contrast | Emphasis (Intensification) | Exemplification (Illustration) | Place (Space) | Pronouns | Purpose | Qualification | Summary | Time

Addition

  • again
  • also
  • and
  • another
  • as well as
  • besides
  • both
  • but also
  • equally important
  • even more
  • finally
  • first (second, third)
  • further
  • furthermore
  • last
  • lastly
  • likewise
  • in addition
  • initially
  • moreover
  • next
  • nor
  • not only
  • once (twice, three times)
  • other
  • similarly
  • or
  • than
  • that same
  • too


Cause and Effect

  • accordingly
  • as a result
  • because
  • consequently
  • for that reason
  • given
  • hence
  • on account of
  • since
  • so
  • so that
  • resulting in
  • therefore
  • thus
  • with the result that

Clarification

  • in other words
  • that is to say
  • to clarify
  • to explain
  • to put it another way

Comparison (Similarity)

  • analogous to
  • as if
  • by the same token
  • equally
  • in like manner
  • in a similar fashion
  • in the same way
  • just as
  • like
  • likewise
  • similarly
  • such
  • that same

Concession

  • although
  • at any rate
  • at least
  • even though
  • granted that
  • in spite of
  • of course
  • still
  • to be sure
  • while

Conclusion

  • in conclusion
  • finally
  • to conclude

Contrast

  • after all
  • although
  • and yet
  • another
  • at the same time
  • but
  • conversely
  • even though
  • however
  • in contrast
  • in spite of
  • nevertheless
  • nonetheless
  • nor
  • notwithstanding
  • on the one hand
  • on the contrary
  • on the other hand
  • or
  • other
  • otherwise
  • rather
  • unlike
  • while this may be true
  • yet

Emphasis (Intensification)

  • above all
  • by all means
  • certainly
  • especially
  • indeed
  • in fact
  • in truth
  • no
  • of course
  • surely
  • to repeat
  • truly
  • undoubtedly
  • without a doubt
  • yes

Exemplification (Illustration)

  • as an illustration
  • especially
  • including
  • in detail
  • in other words
  • in particular
  • for example
  • for instance
  • namely
  • specifically
  • such as
  • to demonstrate
  • to explain
  • to illustrate

Place (Space)

  • above
  • adjacent to
  • below
  • beyond
  • elsewhere
  • here
  • inside
  • nearby
  • neighboring
  • next to
  • on
  • opposite to
  • outside
  • there
  • wherever

Pronouns that clearly refer back to a word, phrase, list, image, etc.

  • her / his / its / my / our / that / their / this / these / those / your__________
  • she / he / it / they / we

Purpose

  • for this purpose
  • for this reason
  • so that
  • to that end
  • with this in mind
  • therefore

Qualification

  • almost
  • although
  • always
  • frequently
  • maybe
  • nearly
  • never
  • perhaps
  • probably
  • usually

Summary

  • as a result
  • finally
  • in brief
  • in conclusion
  • in short
  • in sum
  • in summary
  • in the end
  • therefore
  • thus
  • to summarize
  • to sum up
  • ultimately

Time

  • after
  • afterward
  • all the while
  • always
  • another
  • as
  • at last
  • at length
  • at the same time
  • before
  • coincidentally
  • during
  • earlier
  • even as
  • finally
  • first (second, third)
  • following
  • for a minute
  • formerly
  • generally
  • immediately
  • in the meantime
  • last
  • later
  • meanwhile
  • never
  • next
  • now
  • once
  • ordinarily
  • previously
  • rarely
  • simultaneously
  • so far
  • sometimes
  • soon
  • subsequently
  • that same hour (minute, day)
  • then
  • this time
  • to begin with
  • until now
  • usually
  • when
  • whenever
  • while
  • ultimately
Marcia Riefer Johnston

Marcia has run a tech-writing business for ... a long time. The author of "Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them)," she taught tech writing in the Engineering School at Cornell University and studied literature and creative writing in the Syracuse University Masters program. For more, see howtowriteeverything.com.

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