Writing Fundamentals II: How to Transition Between Paragraphs

Writing Fundamentals II: How to Transition Between Paragraphs

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I?ve been a writing consultant at UB?s Center for Excellence in Writing for little over a year now, and in that time ? brief though it?s been ? I?ve found that there are some fairly common patterns when it comes to what people are concerned about in their writing. Since LinkedIn makes it so easy to publish clean, easy-to-read articles, and since the LinkedIn community seems like it should have a particular interest in how to write well (How many professions are there, really, where written communication isn?t a critical skill?), I figured I?d try and address these common concerns in a series of articles ? of which this is the first.

I figured it would be good to start out with the seemingly small and specific topic of paragraph transition for a variety of reasons ? but chief among them is the fact that paragraph transition is a skill which virtually every writer, in every field, has to make use of.

Whether you?re writing a technical report, an academic essay on 18th Century Russian Literature, a press release, or a public mission statement, there is always this problem: That at some point you finish talking about one thing, and now you need to talk about another, and somehow you have to make a connection between the two in the mind of the reader. Students I?ve spoken with ? especially students in the first two semesters of the composition program ? express a great deal of trepidation when it comes to approaching this problem. The sense I get is that they think making this connection involves some level of writerly finesse that they simply lack: They feel like they don?t know how to write the clever turn of phrase or insightful remark that, in their minds, is the form a good transition between paragraphs takes. They feel like the sections of their writing just sort of line up obediently one after another, but aren?t really bridged by anything in between; they feel like their writing doesn?t ?flow? ? that it just starts and stops, starts and stops.

And the difficult truth is that, in a lot of cases, students? writing often does lack that illusive quality of flow (which, I think, is deserving of an article all on its own ? but I digress.)

Whatever the case may be when it comes to the flow of someone?s writing, at any rate, there?s always a happy silver lining present in all of this, and it?s that building these connections between paragraphs and creating at least some sense of flow requires almost no writerly finesse at all. The process of doing it is simple to the point of being formulaic, in fact.

So here?s the formula: A good transition between paragraphs is a good transition only because it does two things: First, it reminds the reader of what they?ve just read, and second, it gives them a good sense of what they?re going to read next, and why.

Now, the reader might be forgiven for thinking, at first, ?But of course ? figuring out how to do those things is exactly the problem people have with this.? I would respond that, on the contrary, the problem is that people think doing these things is something that has to be figured out in the first place; the problem is that people think these are things which have to be done in an ingeniously seamless, almost indirect way, when really those are two of the least attractive qualities in a transition. Indeed, effective transitions usually work because they are not seamless and indirect: instead they call attention to the spaces between topics of discussion, and they do this in a very straightforward, very obvious way.

In my experience a lot of writers are uncomfortable with the idea of being straightforward about their intentions in a paper outside of its introduction. Once their thesis is clearly stated, they seem impelled to apply the old creative writing adage to the very different world of non-fiction ? showing instead of telling the reader what their argument is. Although it?s more than possible to write an essay entirely this way ? avoiding any explicit statement of your argument, and relying instead on the order and content of the paragraphs themselves to communicate your reasoning ? it is very hard to pull off. More precisely: it?s hard to pull off well, and when you do pull it off it?s to no particularly obvious benefit. Some readers might appreciate the subtlety, but without the proper framing or outright stating, even more readers will be unsure of what your argument actually is: what its premises are, how they relate to or follow another, how they build to your thesis, etc.

So, to be clear: When you are writing ? especially when you are writing something lengthy and concentrated, like an article or an essay ? it is perfectly fine and even necessary to directly tell the reader what you?re up to.

And when I say ?directly tell the reader,? I mean tell them directly, as in say something to the effect of ?We?ve just finished discussing this, and now we?re going to talk about this, because X Y and Z.? For a more concrete example, imagine an informative essay about gentrification, and how it might pivot from talking about the people affected by gentrification to talking about the people who are potentially driving it:

?We?ve seen how long-term residents of a community feel about the return of investment to their neighborhood and the threat of gentrification which it brings, but what is the view from the other side, the view of the contractors and developers? How do they understand their effect on these communities, and, if they think they might be having any kind of negative influence on the people already living in them, what are they doing to try and mitigate that? As we?ll see, the answers to these questions have important implications for how simple incentives in local markets can have wide-ranging effects for entire neighborhoods and cities.?

A few things to note here. First, the directness of the transition: The very personal ?we? is used to speak right to the reader about the essay itself, and the author even shows her hand, so to speak, by mentioning the general point she?s eventually going to work up to. I argue that this directness is a good thing: mystery and teasing the reader along are the proper domain of thrillers and detective fiction, not technical or argumentative writing. In those disciplines, the object is usually to convey some idea, process, method, information ? etc. ? to the reader, and this is a very difficult task indeed, because it means that someone who has done a lot of thinking about a subject (i.e., you) has to empathize with someone who is probably thinking about this subject for the first time (i.e., your reader,) and write accordingly. The simple fact that you?ve been thinking about your chosen subject a lot more than your reader has means that the connections between the sections in your writing are almost always going to be clearer to you than to them, ? which is why it?s always better to err on the side of caution when changing sections ? which is why, in short, it?s almost always better to be direct than not. ?We?ve just finished discussing this, now we?re going to discuss this, because X Y and Z.? Coming off as a little too meticulous in framing your argument is always preferable to coming off as obscure, confused, or aimless.

The second thing to note about the above example is its length. Made out of three long, multi-clause sentences, it?s larger than even a few of the paragraphs in this article. And this is OK. Sometimes ? and especially when you?re making a major pivot in your writing, from one broad portion of your topic to another ? sometimes the best transition between paragraphs or sections is a paragraph itself. Indeed, there are a lot of times when there?s just no way around it: you have to take a step back from the subject at hand for a moment and make sure that the reader is on the same page with you, in two or three sentences. Maybe it?s because of the way students are taught to write essays in high school, or maybe it?s a habit impressed on people during first year composition classes, but a lot of writers anyway seem to be uncomfortable with breaking out of the usual body paragraph format of one topic sentence followed by five to six sentences of exposition. So, in keeping with my own guidelines, I will be explicit: it?s OK to have paragraphs that are only three, two, or ? yes ? even one sentence long.

Of course this miniature paragraph format isn?t the form which most transitions need to take. In fact most transitions shouldn?t be written out to this length, for obvious logistical and aesthetic reasons. The main reason I wrote my first example the way I did was to introduce the second point about different varieties of paragraphs.

Rather, most transitions can and should be accomplished with one or two lines which take their usual position at the end of one paragraph or the beginning of another. To illustrate how the first example might be compressed to this size:

?We?ve seen how long-term residents of a community feel about the return of investment to their neighborhood and the threat of gentrification which it brings, but the other side of the equation, the contractors and developers who actually do this investing, is also important to understand.?

A sentence like this can act as both a transition and the topic sentence of a regular paragraph; it clarifies what was just discussed and introduces the new topic at hand. Although it doesn?t explicitly communicate all of the information which could be found in the larger version ? namely, what questions the author hopes to ask of these contractors and developers, and why / how these questions build to her larger thesis ? these are all things which can be conveyed in the actual paragraph itself.

This is the form that most effective transitions will end up taking. They have one foot in the last paragraph and one in the new; on the long and oftentimes winding road that is any argument or thought presented in written form, they act as signposts and rest stops, places to refresh and reorientate. The trick to making them ? if I might sum up this article as succinctly as I can ? is to not treat making them as a trick at all, but to instead treat it as one of the simplest things in the world: telling someone where they?re standing.

Watch me transition between paragraphs and states of life in this short memoir I?m writing about the time I almost died last July

Arnold Palmer

Chapters 1-3 Preface: This is the beginning of what is basically a (forgive the phrase) roman a clef of the very end of?


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