Just a few days ago, I received an email from a fellow writer, and I opened it right away. It was one of his business newsletters, which are almost always interesting or thought-provoking.
His writing is usually excellent as well.
But this time, something was wrong. After reading only a few lines, I became frustrated. And halfway through the short email, I clicked it shut and shook my head.
My brain was fried. I knew what it was about from the subject line and the first few sentences, but for some reason I felt dizzy, confused, and annoyed.
An hour later, I tried reading the email again to figure out what the problem was. Same thing: frustration, confusion, bewilderment. Then I looked at it from an editor’s point of view and relaxed.
No typos. No misspellings. No grammatical mistakes. No punctuation errors. Perfect.
But something wasn’t right. I drummed my fingers on my chin and bit my lip. What could it be?
I’ve felt baffled over a piece of writing in a similar way before… Then I saw it.
In this short email, 21 single sentences formed the paragraphs, such as they were.
Short, simple sentences were separated by line breaks even though many of them, when examined as a group, actually represented one idea. Some that would ordinarily be joined by commas to make one sentence—rather than stand alone with just a few words each—were also separated by line breaks.
I didn’t understand. It sort of looked like freestyle poetry, which I love. But informational emails (or blog posts or any kind of non-fiction writing) aren’t poetry. Not even close. But that’s what the length of the sentences and the line breaks appeared to suggest.
Internet writing means short paragraphs
Over the last few years, an Internet writing trend to keep paragraphs short and to the point has emerged and become popular. And I applaud it. I write that way myself, as you can see. But it takes some serious thinking to make it work.
And it’s especially challenging to write even a short piece in a format of one sentence per line. Feels like torture, if you ask me. Like writing my life story in iambic pentameter.
But back to the matter at hand: how could that confusing email be improved?
By using transitions.
Transitions are like bridges that connect sentences and paragraphs
Transitions are words or phrases that carry the reader from one idea to the next. They help a reader see the connection or relationship between ideas and, just as important, transitions also prevent sudden, jarring mental leaps between sentences and paragraphs.
To illustrate: Do you know anyone who tends to change the subject suddenly during a conversation? I do, and it’s disorienting. It seems like a sudden thought pops into their head, and they blurt it out without any sort of closure to the original topic or introduction to the next.
It’s usually a WTF moment, and it’s very confusing.
Writing presents the same challenge. As one subject or idea concludes, the next subject or concept must be introduced smoothly. And that’s what transitions are for.
Transitions indicate time, examples, exceptions, comparisons, and sequences plus a whole lot more. Just now I repeated “transitions,” for example, from the previous paragraph to hold the thought in your head and let you know we’re still talking directly about transitions.
Are you with me?
Many words can serve as transitions (see, we’re still on transitions so I repeated it). Some of the most common or obvious transitions are words or phrases like first, second, then, later, afterward, suddenly, at this point, a few days later, nevertheless, however, and so on.
Even simple words like and or but serve as transitions. The word even at the beginning of this paragraph is a transition, too. So is too.
Improve your writing by using transitions
By adding a few transitions to those 21 short sentences that short-circuited my already busy brain, that email could have been so much better.
But writing something in a format of one sentence per line is no easy task for even the best writer, and I recommend combining sentences into short paragraphs of 2-4 sentences each when ideas are related. Varying the length of the sentences also makes reading more enjoyable.
And don’t hesitate to throw in a few one-liners here and there for emphasis.
Now it’s true that I’m a fussy editor who wonders whether anal retentive should have a hyphen or not, and I’m not like many Internet readers with supposedly short attention spans. I actually read every single word when I expect the message has something to offer. Or at least I try.
And maybe some readers skim easily over the same writing that bogs me down. But more times than not, if I’m having trouble reading something, others are too.
Without a doubt, using some transitional words or phrases would change that frustrating email from, well, an exercise in frustration to an interesting minute or two of reading.
Comments are always welcome.
One of the best ways to improve any essay is by incorporating transitions. Effective transitions are what enable the main idea(s) and important points in an essay to flow together. In a sense, it is transitions that make a paper become an actual essay as opposed to just a random assortment of various facts. Without them, an essay will often seem to be lacking in unity.
How do you know that you need better and/or more transitions? If your paper seems choppy, lacking in flow, or generally unorganized, these are all signs that your paper is lacking transitions. Also, the longer an essay is and the more points that are presented, the greater the need for transitions to connect all of the important ideas.
- Transitions should occur at a variety of places in an essay. They should be present between sentences in a body paragraph and between the body paragraphs themselves.
- Transitions between sentences are often only one word (however, therefore, etc.) or a brief series of words. These allow the reader to move from one sentence to the next and show how all sentences are related together.
- Transitions between paragraphs are slightly more complex as they move the reader from one main idea to the next. These become particularly important in longer essays where more information is presented.
The following examples provide a paragraph without transitions, followed by a revised paragraph that contains them:
- Example #1: Students who write academic essays need to provide effective transitions. Transitions allow writers to connect the main ideas that are present in an essay. Using conjunctive adverbs and other introductory elements allow a writer to connect one sentence to the next. The use of these words will make the writing more fluent and less choppy. Many students fail to use effective transitions, and the essay comes across as disconnected. Writers should always be aware of the need to connect both sentences and paragraphs together.
Notice how the paragraph above contains valuable information about the use of transitions, but the sentences seem disconnected. It reads as if there are several ideas that are simply thrown together. Now read the paragraph below and see how using a few minor transitions allows the sentences and the information in them to be more connected (the transitions that have been added are in bold):
- Revised Example #1: Students who write academic essays need to provide effective transitions. It is the use of these transitions that allow writers to connect the main ideas that are present in an essay. For example, by using conjunctive adverbs and other introductory elements, a writer can easily connect one sentence to the next. Moreover, the use of these words will make the writing more fluent and less choppy. Unfortunately, students often fail to use effective transitions, and, as a result, the essay comes across as disconnected. To avoid this, writers should always be aware of the need to connect both sentences and paragraphs together, and they should strive to find creative ways to do so.
The following is a categorized list of transitional words that can be used, depending on the type of transition that is needed:
To Add: additionally, in addition, again, besides, moreover, what’s more, equally important (also important), finally, further, furthermore, first (second, third, etc.) next, lastly
To Repeat: as mentioned, as has been noted, in brief
To Show Exception: however, nevertheless, in spite of, yet, still, despite, of course, once in a while, sometimes, unfortunately
To Compare: however, on the other hand, on the contrary, in contrast, whereas, but, yet, nevertheless, by comparison, compared to, conversely, up against, balanced against, but, although, meanwhile, after all, while this may be true
To Emphasize: indeed, certainly, in any case, without a doubt, obviously, definitely, extremely, in fact, absolutely, positively, naturally, surprisingly, emphatically, unquestionably , undeniably, without reservation, always, never
To Prove: furthermore, moreover, in example, in fact, indeed, because, for, since, for the same reason, for this reason, obviously, evidently, besides, in addition, in any case
To Give an Example: for example, for instance, to demonstrate, to illustrate, as an illustration, in another case, take the case of, on this occasion, in this situation
To Show Sequence: as a result, subsequently, consequently, concurrently, following this, now, at this point, afterward, simultaneously, thus, hence, therefore, first (second, third, etc.)
To Show Time: immediately, thereafter, then, soon after, next, and then, finally, later, previously, formerly, first (second, third, etc.)
To Summarize or Conclude: In conclusion, as demonstrated, to conclude, summing up, in brief, as a result, therefore, accordingly, consequently, hence, on the whole