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Academic Coaching & Writing

VI. Work the Transitions

Mar 15, 2016 by Amy Benson Brown

Maybe like me you first encountered transition terms in a middle school textbook. I can still see them—words like “however,” furthermore,” “moreover, and “thus”—lined up single file in an inset box, like prisoners in some kind of rhetorical jail. Little did I know how much I would come to value these words.

Though those sorts of transition terms seem a bit pompous in everyday conversation, in academic writing they serve a highly practical purpose. They signal to the reader how the idea in one sentence logically follows the preceding one. Once again, the value lies in increasing the reader’s ability to discern how the parts of the argument fit together. Is a sentence, for example, an illustration or elaboration on the preceding sentence’s point? Or, does a sentence offer a contrasting view or a qualification of that earlier point?

Furthermore (all puns intended!), in academic writing, there is another type of transition that is even more important than simple transition terms. In fact, I would argue that academic arguments live or die on how well they use a more complex transition, referred to as a “substantive transition.” Such transitions often take the form of a sentence or two. In long arguments, a whole paragraph may be used as a transition to prepare the reader to accept a turn in the argument.

Though these substantive transitions are longer and more intricate than simple transition terms, they, too, do the critical work of explaining to your reader how one line of thought in your argument logically relates to the next line of thought. Consider the example below in which political analyst Dr. Agnia Grigas helps readers see the historic shift in the significance of international gas markets in the introduction to her book on the topic, forthcoming from Harvard Press.

Initially, gas was little more than a waste product of oil production and because of its lower energy density than oil and due to the difficulty in transporting it long distances or across seas, it was considered less of a strategic commodity than oil. Indeed, it was oil rather than gas that won the First and the Second World Wars for the Allies and it was American oil supplies that established the country as the leading power of the twentieth century. At the same time, the nature of gas and the gas markets made it a commodity more susceptible to politics than oil.

In this passage, simple transition terms like “initially,” “indeed,” and short phrases like “at the same time” signal to the reader how each sentence relates to the one preceding it. But the real significance of the shift in ideas here is spelled out with a transition sentence at the end of the paragraph. This sentence transitions to the next paragraph by starting with the idea of the current paragraph and leading the way to the idea of the next paragraph. The last sentence connects the two paragraphs by explaining not only that gas markets differed from oil markets but why they differed—they were “more susceptible to politics than oil.”

Exploring such examples may be useful, but metaphors or analogies shed another kind of light. Consider the following analogy as a way of explaining what transitions do, why good ones can make an argument, and why poor ones can break an argument.

Transitions are to an argument what joints are to a human body. Think of the way the knee joint works in a runner, in particular. Now apply that understanding to the structure of an argument. Can you see how effective transitions propel an argument forward while simultaneously holding it together? No mean feat!

But what if your argument doesn’t move forward? What if it gets stuck and falls apart. If a runner could no longer move forward, she might get an x-ray or have a doctor test her joints to see what is wrong. When you “work the transitions” in your own writing, you undertake a similar kind of investigation. You look at each part and test the language, the logic—that is, the connective tissue leading to the next piece of evidence.

In my experience with academic authors, it’s not unusual for people at first to have trouble explaining why they ordered their arguments as they did. Thus, they cannot readily explain the transition—how or why they moved from point A to point B. Their reasoning has not yet reached a conscious level of awareness and so is not articulated. The exercise below aims to help you recognize your underlying or unconscious reasoning. It may also help you discover what the relationships are between parts of your argument so that you can translate that understanding into effective transitions.

Exercise: Reconstruct the Logic of Your Argument

If you want to discover the relationships between the parts of your argument, here’s an exercise to help:

  1. Make a reverse outline of your draft. For each paragraph write down one sentence that summarizes the point.
  2. For each point in your reverse outline, reflect on why it follows the previous one.
  3. Once you understand how each point relates to the one before it and the one after it, capture that relationship with the appropriate transition to make your logic transparent.

This exercise, however, sometimes uncovers the need to restructure how you present your argument. If you can’t discern the logical transitions between ideas and paragraphs, you probably need to reorder or restructure your argument.

One reason “working the transitions” is so valuable is that it often enables you to more clearly see the symbiotic relationship between thinking and writing. Working the transitions makes you reflect on your keys pieces of evidence and how to structure them so that the coherence of your argument is undeniable.

I address this strategy last because mastering the other four strategies often equips authors with the skills and confidence to beautifully design transitions. To recap, the acronym FIRST provides an easy way to recall five strategies that have the greatest impact in helping authors produce stellar prose. FIRST strategies explored in this blog include: frontloading your argument; owning your ideas; writing for readers; using simple syntax wherever possible; and working your transitions.

Although there is no single, right order to be used in practicing these strategies, you may find it easier to achieve fluency if you begin by practicing these strategies one at a time. Consider devoting a writing session (or several sessions) to going through a draft of a work in progress, focusing on implementing just one strategy. You might choose frontloading, but you could just as will begin with practicing using simple syntax to convey complex ideas.

This approach is a bit analogous to the way athletes or musicians devote time to one small part of the complex repertoire of skills that collectively make them succeed. Recently, I observed a swim coach—a former Olympic-level competitor—instruct her swimmers to repeat the underwater push-off from the side of the pool that launches the backstroke. Again and again, they did this for 45 minutes. Already highly skilled and competitive swimmers, they were surprised when every one of them substantially increased the distance gained underwater, thus improving their speeds. Similarly, isolating and practicing just one of these FIRST strategies for several sessions as you develop a draft is a kind of skill drill that strengthens a specific writing “muscle,” enabling you to use that strategy with greater ease and efficiency from then on.   

Whether you begin by practicing these strategies one at a time or take a different approach, you will notice eventually that most of these strategies reinforce each other. Mastering one helps smooth the way to success in another. I think you will find that employing these strategies together creates a kind of synergy that empowers your prose.

Finally, I invite to you experiment with the basic template of strategies this FIRST blog describes. You are the author, after all. As you gain greater awareness and skill in the craft of writing, the more you should also listen to your intuition. Expand and play with ways to work with the strategies I’ve outlined here. Adapt them to your needs for particular projects. The ultimate measure of your success in mastering these FIRST strategies is the extent to which they bring out and enhance your readers’ appreciation for the distinctive flavor of your own voice.

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