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WriteCast Episode 33: Tackling Transitions

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WriteCast Episode 33: Tackling Transitions

© Walden University Writing Center 2016


[Introduction music]


[Teaser]: BRITTANY: ...and transitions are really your opportunity as the writer to be that guide for your reader....




BRITTANY: Welcome to WriteCast, a casual conversation for serious writers. I’m Brittany Kallman Arneson.


BETH: And I’m Beth Nastachowski.


BRITTANY: In today’s episode, we’re going to take a closer look at transitions, both within and between paragraphs, talking about how to incorporate transitions that look effortless.


BETH: So today we’re going to be talking about transitions both within and between paragraphs. And we’re going to focus on two types of transitions that you can include, both global and more local, within paragraph transitions. Transitions are something that I like to talk a lot about with students, because I think a lot of student know that they need to use transitions and they want to make sure their ideas connect, but it can be a little unclear about how exactly to create transitions or how to include them. So, in particular, it’s really important to include transitions because transitions are really what help lead your reader through your ideas, and maybe it’s helpful to clarify that, when we talk about transitions, we’re not just talking about smaller words like “additionally” or “however” although those are of course transitions and are very useful and we’ll talk more about those.

But transitions also just mean kind of connecting ideas and making sure that your ideas are logically used or organized so that your reader can really follow them very clearly. So, one thing I really like to emphasize with transitions is that they’re really there for your reader. You’re creating transitions or including transitions not necessarily for you as the writer, but for your reader so that your reader can follow along. Let’s start with talking about global transitions and looking at transitions between paragraphs.


BRITTANY: Yeah, Beth, I love this idea of the transition being for the reader, because I think that that’s a perspective that academic writers don’t always have when they first start out in their academic careers. We’ve talked about this in different ways on the podcast before, this idea that sometimes academic writing or scholarly writing can feel like more of a show, almost, like an opportunity to prove all the stuff you know, than it is sort of a narrative or a cohesive unit on its own. And I think a lot of times, students, as they’re starting out, do really feel like the purpose of each paper they’re writing is to prove to their professor that they know some stuff and to get a  good grade and move on. That is part of it, of course, but I think that they key here – one of the skills that you’re trying to build, in addition to memorizing facts – is this ability to synthesize those facts together into a sort of mini story, almost. That’s what each paper or each unit of writing can be, and transitions are really your opportunity as the writer to be that guide for your readers.

It’s not just a matter of being like here’s a bunch of stuff, reader, bam, bam, bam; it’s saying here’s something and then I’m going to tell you about this other thing, but here’s how this thing is related to the first thing, and really gently, gently guiding your reader from one idea to the next, so that your reader sort of absorbs your ideas without even really realizing that they’re absorbing them.  So, it’s making your argument stronger by guiding your reader through your ideas and telling them how they relate to one another. That’s sort of the key, I think, behind transitions. Would you agree, Beth?


BETH: Yeah, certainly, and I think our first section of transitions or type of transitions we’re going to talk about – global transitions – definitely fall into that camp, right, Brittany? Because the global transitions aren’t what we often think about when we think of transitions, because they’re not quite as obvious, but they really do help guide your reader. They’re kind of like you being kind of the reader. That’s what I was thinking of when you were talking, that you’re kind of being kind to the reader by including these things, and it kind of should look effortless. So, you might not think about the things we’re going to talk about as global transitions because oftentimes they’re incorporated so effortlessly that we don’t think of them really as transitions, right away.


BRITTANY: Right, exactly.


BETH: Is that kind of what you’re saying?


BRITTANY: Yes, completely. I think that’s a really good point, that it’s hard to learn how to do those just by looking at a piece of writing, even if you’re looking at a really good piece of writing, because you might not even notice that they’re doing it, if they’re doing it really artfully. And that’s not to say that it can’t be learned, because it absolutely can, and we’re gonna give you some tips on how to learn to incorporate those. So, with that being said, let’s talk a little bit about these global level transitions, and I think… before we start, it would be helpful to kind of define these terms that we’re using for the reader, global and local. We use these terms a lot in writing instruction, maybe so much that our listeners maybe have heard them before, but just for clarity’s sake: We’re using the term global to refer to the paper level. So, you’ve got your whole paper and then maybe your units that you break down one level smaller than your paragraphs, so when we talk about global, we’re talking about how you get from one big idea to the next big idea, maybe from one paragraph to the next paragraph, or one set of paragraphs or section to the next set of paragraphs or the next section. When we talk about a local transition, or something that’s happening on a local level in the paper, we’re talking about we’re talking about the sentence level or even more nitty gritty than that, like the word level or punctuation.

So when we’re talking about global transitions, we’re really talking about the flow of big ideas in your paper, and how you’re supporting the main argument of your paper, and how you’re kind of helping your reader understand the different pieces of evidence that you’re providing to support that main argument. And I think a good place to start when we’re talking about that is to start with the paragraph as kind of a unit. So, really, in your paper, each paragraph should represent one idea, and we’ve talked about this in other resources on paragraphing, as well, that each paragraph should have a topic sentence, that topic sentence should express a main idea, and then you use the rest of the paragraph to support that main idea. So if you think about a paragraph as a unit, and that unit being one idea, if you have multiple paragraphs in your paper, you need to help your reader understand how to get from one idea to the next idea. That’s where these global transitions come in, is how to get from the end of one paragraph to the beginning of the next paragraph, without them feeling like they’ve kind of been jolted into a new reality.


BETH: Yeah, so, one of the first strategies that we’re going to talk about and that we’ll suggest for you to kind of create transitions between paragraphs is the topic sentence. So, the topic sentence is the first sentence of the paragraph, and it helps introduce the focus of the paragraph. Sometimes when we’re teaching paragraphs, we also call it the introduction to the paragraph, so just like you have an introduction to your paper, you also have a one-sentence topic sentence that introduces the topic of that paragraph. That topic sentence shouldn’t include really specific information or statistics or analysis or anything. It’s more like a general introduction to kind of ease the reader into that particular paragraph. What can happen there is that that topic sentence can kind of help the reader to understand what will be coming next in the paragraph and can kind of help connect how that paragraph’s ideas connect to the previous paragraph, so if you’re looking for a way to connect paragraphs and connect ideas between paragraphs, you can do that with your topic sentence, by sort of referring back to the focus of the previous paragraph and then relating it to the focus of the current paragraph. That can be a useful technique.


BRITTANY: I think it’s really helpful to think about the topic sentences as the introductions of each paragraph. Now, keep in mind that it’s going to be challenging to transition smoothly between paragraphs if the paragraphs are in an illogical order or if the order of the information in the paper doesn’t really follow from one idea to the next. So, I just wanted to add that in there to remind our listeners and our writers that, it may be – in your first couple of drafts – you don’t have your information in the most logical order possible, and that’s a completely normal stage to be in when you’re drafting. As we’ve reiterated many times before, you learn to write by writing, and you learn about your ideas through writing, which means that you aren’t just going to write a beautiful, fluid first draft with all of your ideas fully formed on the very first time that you put pen to paper or your finger to keyboard. So, just keep in mind that if you’re trying to work on transitions and it feels really awkward and you can’t quite figure out how to get from one idea to the next, it may be that you actually need to reorganize the order of your paragraphs a little bit and move stuff around, and you can do that by doing what’s called reverse outlining. We won’t get into that too much here, but we do have a lot of other resources on reverse outlining that you can use to guide you if you need to do that. Just keep in mind that if you’re working on these global level transitions and you’re really kind of hitting a wall, it may be that your information is in the wrong order and you need to reorganize it a little bit.


BETH: Yeah, and related to that, Brittany, I’d also say that headings can be a helpful tool, both for considering how you might need to reorganize, but also for guiding the reader. I know headings are different than paragraphs, so bear with me here, but they’re connecting in that, when you have a heading, you’re basically telling the readers that anything that follows that heading, any of the paragraphs that follow that particular heading, are sort of categorized with this information, so if my heading is “High School Teacher’s Professional Development,” you know that any paragraph beneath that heading should relate to that general topic or fall under the label of “High School Teacher’s Professional Development.” So, headings can be useful for the reader to kind of see how things connect and the commonality between paragraphs, as well. Alternatively, headings can also be useful because you can kind of check and see whether your paragraphs are organized clearly. Is it easy enough to add headings in? Or am I having trouble with headings? And maybe, if you are having trouble, the issue isn’t the headings themselves but the organization of the paragraphs, or maybe you need to move paragraphs into other sections, or things like that.


BRITTANY: Right, great tip. So, a couple of things to avoid when you’re working on these global level transitions or paragraph level transitions. The first one, I see a lot, and it’s a really good instinct, so I often see students sort of leaning into another paragraph, the subsequent paragraph, at the end of the current paragraph. And, so, that might look like, instead of wrapping up and concluding, by summarizing or giving kind of a closing statement for the main idea of the current paragraph, saying, in the next paragraph, I will discuss blah, blah, blah, or something like that, and it may not be as overt as that, but I do see that a lot. I think this tendency can come from a little bit of confusion over what the “L” in the MEAL plan means, so, we talk about the MEAL plan as a paragraphing tool and the letters M, E, A, L stand different pieces of the paragraph, and the “L” stands for “lead out,” which is probably the most confusing of the four in terms of how it’s labeled, and I think sometimes students look at that and say, “Oh, that means that I’m supposed to tell the reader what I’m going to do next, or lead them out of the paragraph.” That’s really kind of a misnomer because that can actually be really jarring and kind of disorienting for the reader.

Sometimes I like to talk about it as going on a hike. So the paper is like going on a hike, and each paragraph is a leg of the hike, and you are the guide with a map, and you are guiding your reader from point A to point B. So, imagine that you’ve been hiking down the trail on this leg and you’ve been saying to your reader the whole time, “don’t worry, we’re almost there” and “up there, we’re going to pass this beautiful mountain range” and then “we’re going to cross this stream and then sit down at this picnic table and have lunch.” But then, when you get to the picnic table, and instead of sitting down and having lunch, you say, “oh! And next, we’re going to get up and go see this and that and nevermind, get up; we’re going to do the next leg of this trip.” So, when you do this, your reader might be a little annoyed with you and really confused because they’ve been going along expecting that they’re going to get a little bit of a rest before getting introduced to a whole new leg of the journey. The concluding sentence of a paragraph is like that rest; it’s like sitting down at the picnic table, at the shelter, and taking a little break and summing up what you’ve done before saying, “okay, it’s time to get up; it’s time to go over here now.” There are a lot of different metaphors that we can use to talk about this, but I think this is one way to talk about when that transition should happen, and how it can be a little bit jarring if you introduce the transition to early.     


BETH: Right! Because everyone likes a rest.


BRITTANY: Exactly.


BETH: I was waiting to say that for a long time. I love that analogy, Brittany. It’s fantastic. So, if we want to include our transition between paragraphs at the start of the new paragraph, we also have to be a little careful that that transition or that topic sentence or that start of the new paragraph isn’t really repetitive or I guess really obvious, either. Sometimes students have this tendency to really want to make sure that the directions that their giving their readers are really explicit and really, really out there where they can see it right away, and that’s a good impulse, again, but often a little bit unnecessary. So, specifically, sometimes students will repeat transitional words at the start of each paragraph. They’ll use things like “next,” or “second,” or “then,” or “additionally” at the beginning of each new paragraph, and that’s not really necessary. Because you’re including a new paragraph, you’re starting a new paragraph at a new point, the reader knows that something is happening next or that something else is going to come here, so it’s kind of implied already.

The other thing is you don’t really need to say things like, “and my next point is” or things like that, and you also don’t necessarily need to explicitly refer to the previous paragraph’s points. Sometimes it’s necessary if two paragraphs are sort of related, but the relationship isn’t very explicit, or really obvious, then it is helpful to say something that refers to the previous paragraph, but oftentimes, the reader can kind of infer the connection between your ideas, right? So, if my first paragraph talks about “High School Teacher Professional Development,” and my second paragraph talks about “Elementary School Teacher Professional Development,” the connection there is pretty clear, right? We’re talking about professional development in two different types of teaching. So, I don’t necessarily need to make it explicit, the connection between those two things. I don’t need to say “Elementary School Teacher Professional Development” and “High School Teacher Professional Development” are both types of professional development, or something like that. It just gets kind of repetitive, right? So, it’s also important just to think about balancing really clear transitions and leading your reader with also not being too explicit or overt or obvious when it’s not necessary. That is a balance, and it’s something that you, as a writer, will get a better sense of as your gain more confidence and more experience writing.


BRITTANY: Right. Like anything, it takes practice. It won’t be easy right away, but it will get easier the more you do it.


BETH: Yeah, for sure.


BRITTANY: So, let’s talk a little bit now about local transitions within paragraphs. These are similar in certain ways to the global transitions that we’ve been talking about  in that they also help guide the reader through your ideas and make connections between different ideas. However, they are – as I mentioned before – more at a sort of granular level in the paper. So, they happen inside of a sentence, or have to do with word choice and things like that than with the flow of big ideas. Really, the key I think to remember about local transitions is that they are going to help sort of knit together the evidence and analysis pieces of your paragraph. So, if you remember the MEAL plan, and how that sort of guides you through the pieces of a successful paragraph, those middle of the sandwich pieces of that paragraph are the evidence component and the analysis component, the information that you are taking out from outside sources and putting in your paper as support of main idea of that paragraph – that’s the evidence piece of course – and then your own analysis – that’s your own voice coming and making a sort of value statement about that evidence or showing how that evidence related to the specific topic of your paragraph and of your paper. Those points can feel a little abrupt if you don’t use those local transitions. So, that’s what we’re going to talk about in this section, how to make that marriage between evidence and analysis a little bit more harmonious.


BETH: I like your point, Brittany, the way that you said the marriage between evidence and analysis, because I think we talk about them separately, but they really need to be melded together in the paragraph, so I think that’s a great way to think about it.


BRITTANY: Cool. So, let’s talk some strategies. Really, the thing that we think about most when we think about sentence level transitions are these sort of explicit transitional words and phrases, so phrases that show relationship or make connection between ideas. Some really common ones are “next, second, additionally,” or “however”… those kinds of words that we sort of traditionally think of as transition words. Those can be really helpful words, and they can certainly help you draw those connections between the evidence and the analysis in your paragraph.


BETH: The second kind of transition that you can include is my favorite kind; it’s called implicit transitional words and phrases. I think I kind of made up these term to refer to these things, but I think it’s really useful to think about these things as not just ways that can include explicit transitional words, but also the implicit things we do in sentence structure and in word choice and in punctuation that help connect ideas as well. This is a little bit of something we think about when we think about transitions, but it’s things like “and” or “also” that create transitions and connect ideas. Also, if you connect ideas into one sentence, you’re creating sort of an implicit transition, and the same can be said when you’re using certain kinds of punctuation. I really like to use semi-colons and dashes in my writing to show connections between ideas. So, that’s another way that you can sort of imply connection between ideas without using these sort of explicit transitions. And that kind of leads me to a couple things we wanted to avoid, as well, is that explicit transitions can be really useful, but they can also be choppy and distracting if you repeat them too much.


BRITTANY: Right, and sort of along the same lines, using too many of those explicit transition words can really repetitive and overwhelming for the reader and can sort of take away the power of those words, too, if you’re using them too often or overusing them, they sort of lose their meaning. So, saying additionally before every sentence is not going to have as much impact as if you were to save that word for an instance where you really want to say that this information is in addition to the information that came before it. The same applies across the board for those more explicit transitional words.


BETH: Yeah. Sometimes we’ll get questions from students like, “what is the best transitional word to use?” And there really is no one-size-fits-all answer here. When you’re thinking about transitions within paragraphs, you really want to use all of these different options here. You can think of them as all sort of tools in your toolbox that you can deploy and use in different part of your writing to create transitions but also to avoid that repetition.


BRITTANY: So, to wrap up a little bit here, we want to talk about how to actually begin doing this. We’ve given you some tools here to include transitions both between paragraphs and between sentences inside a paragraph, now we want to talk about the process of learning to do this and revising for transitions as you’re working on a draft. So, the first thing that I want to emphasize is that you do not have to incorporate all of this on the first try. That might feel really overwhelming. I would put transitions on sort of the later end of the revision process in general. So, like I was saying earlier, if you don’t have your ideas fully fleshed out or if you haven’t figured out the flow of the ideas or the order they should come in, it’s going to be especially tough to work on those global transitions, the paragraph level transitions. As you begin writing your paragraphs, you can begin doing the local transitions, the sentence level transitions more, but—again—if you don’t have them right away, it’s okay. If it feels choppy at first, it’s okay. This is definitely something you can work on in your revising process and you keep working on your drafts and continue to evaluate your drafts. So, don’t worry if you don’t get these all in there, right away in the very beginning.


BETH: And, the thing that I would just add to that, as well, Brittany, is that you can also look at your writing step by step for each of these areas of transitions. We’ve talked about global and local, and you don’t need to revise and go through and add in global and local transitions at the same time. What I typically suggest to students is that they separate the revision process, so that, as they revise, they read through their draft for one area that they want to work on, and then read through it again for another area and kind of take it stage by stage, and that can be really useful in kind of breaking down that revision process.


BRITTANY: I love that. That seems so manageable.


BETH: It’s like a checklist. I love my checklists.




BETH: Cool! All right, so, for more information about transitions from our website and our blog, go to our website and search in the top right corner for “transitions,” and you’ll find lots of other information. You might also take a look and search for “paragraphs,” as well, if you’re looking for tips on how to kind of create those topic sentences and see examples of paragraphs. That’s a great idea. And, that’s it from us for the year. So, we hope that you have a great rest of the year. We are excited to come back again in January. We are thinking about ways to help you jump-start your writing process in January, and we are going to come back then and have a great podcast episode with writing instructor, Max and Jes, who will be talking about mindful writing. We’ll be interviewing them a little bit about that.


BRITTANY: Thanks so much for listening this year, everyone. We hope you have a great holiday, and happy New Year.




BRITTANY: WriteCast is a production of the Walden University Writing Center. This episode was produced by me, Brittany Kallman Arneson; my co-host, Beth Nastachowski; and our colleague, Anne Shiell.