Transitions in academic essays

Writers see all of the connections in their own writing without the help of good transitions. You’ve been thinking deeply about your topic and essay, so of course it’s easy for you to see how it all fits together. But your reader can’t always see the connections that appear naturally to you. This difference of perspective is the cause when many writers fail to use effective transitions.

This article offers four techniques you can use to make sure your reader follows your train of thought.

Good transition practice clears up for your reader the connections between your thoughts, and clear connections are crucial to clear writing. To be a good writer, you need to help your reader understand how what you’ve already said relates to what you’re saying, and you need to help them see the logic of this relationship.

1. The known-new contract

One way to keep this relationship clear is through a device called the known-new contract. The known-new contract is about both agreement of topic matter between sentences and sentence-to-sentence cohesion.

It requires you to consider the ordering of information in a sentence. We can think of the contract in terms of three rules:

  1. Do not begin sentences with new information.
  2. Do begin each sentence by referring to information that has already been given.
  3. Do end each sentence with new information.

This practice allows the reader to approach each new thought on familiar ground, and each sentence performs the task of integrating old information with new information. Unexplained shifts of topic are far less common when you fulfill the contract.

For example, compare variations on the sentences you just read with the following paraphrased version:

“3. Do end each sentence with new information. The reader approaches each new thought on familiar ground, and the sentence does the work of integrating this old information with the new information it conveys.”

In this example, the beginning of the second sentence is slightly disorienting—“the reader”? What reader? We haven’t been talking about readers in this sub-section, so how does a reader relate to the topic matter of the sentence before? The leap to a new topic at the beginning of the sentence breaks the cohesion between the sentences, and the sentences don’t have similar topic matter sticking them together anymore. For this reason, the original version is better, more cohesive.

Tip—Use “this x” to begin sentences

Notice that in that original version, the second sentence begins with “this practice.” Here, “This” is a kind of dummy word, but it allows for a follow-up word to connect topic matter. Using a “this x” phrase can be helpful in fulfilling the known-new contract if you can’t think of a more natural way to begin with some known information. Use this trick where you need it, but don’t overuse it. Starting too many sentences with “this x” makes for over-repetitive sentence structure.

2. Transition words and phrases

The known-new contract makes for some of the most natural transitions, but there are plenty of transition words and phrases that you can use when fulfilling the known-new contract doesn’t seem to work for you. Transitional words and phrases include:

  • subordinating conjunctions (while, although, when, etc.)
  • relative pronouns (which, who, that, etc.)
  • conjunctive adverbs (however, therefore, instead, furthermore, etc.)
  • signposting phrases (in this case, for example, firstly, etc.).

These words and phrases all signal the function of the sentence in relation to what’s come before it. Use them to clarify the relationship between sentences wherever you feel this relationship isn’t quite clear already.

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3. Group similar information

On the other hand, try to eliminate the need to transition unnecessarily. You might have noticed by now that transitioning effectively requires a document to use more words than it would otherwise use—we add known information to beginnings of sentences and use more transitional words and phrases. However, too much transitioning makes for baggy writing.

As much as possible, group all similar information into one spot in the paper, so that you don’t as often need to indicate changes of topic with good transitions. Say it once, say right, and then move on.

4. Transitioning between paragraphs

Paragraph transitions should usually be placed at the beginnings of new paragraphs, rather than at the ends of old ones. This is because paragraphs should focus on one topic and, as we just noted, similar information should be grouped together. Since transitions are usually forward-looking, they most often focus on the topic matter that follows them. A transition into a new paragraph usually focuses on the topic matter of that new paragraph, so the transition belongs to the new paragraph.

Tip—Summarize and then proceed

Unlike all of the other transitions we’ve seen, which focus on how sentences relate to one another, paragraph transitions relate the focus of a preceding paragraph to the focus of a new paragraph. For this reason, paragraph transitions usually offer a reference to the main point of the preceding paragraph (rather than to only the preceding sentence), and they relate this point to the main point of the present paragraph.

When writing a paragraph transition, focus on what the paragraph does:

  • Does it continue with a related point (e.g. “Another point in support of x is y…)?
  • Does it provide a counter-point to the previous paragraph (e.g. “The matter of x, however, is not the final word in an evaluation of y”)?
  • Does it infer or deduce something from the previous paragraph or section (e.g. “From x, y, and z, we are now in a position to make plausible conclusions about p and q”)?

Two closing notes: Transition size and transition nuance

First, I’ve offered examples of transition words and phrases, but at times your transition will require a full sentence. Furthermore, in a longer work like a master’s thesis, to transition well full paragraphs are sometimes necessary. Remember, in academic writing you always need to be as concise as possible, but you also need to be as clear as possible. If you can’t transition clearly in a word, use a phrase. If you can’t do it clearly in a phrase, use a sentence. If you can’t do it in a sentence, well… use more.

Second, each transitional word or phrase has its own meaning, and certain transition words, such as therefore, are often misused. Be sure that you’re using the right transition words for what you mean.

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Shane Bryson

Shane finished his master's degree in English literature in 2013 and has been working as a writing tutor and editor since 2009. He began proofreading and editing essays with Scribbr in early summer, 2014.

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