Whenever you shift the discussion in a new sentence, you need to make a clear transition. Never drop your readers. Keep them reading.
But how do we keep them reading? Look at the example below, drawn from a student essay. Notice how these two sentences lack transition:
Many Americans propose that Creationism should be taught in the science classroom. Scientists think it is better suited to the religion or philosophy classroom.
Do you see ways to make a transition here? Here are the three main methods:
1. Combine the sentences into one, and let that single sentence act as the bridge from one point into the next.
Many Americans propose that Creationism should be taught in the science classroom, but scientists think it is better suited to the religion or philosophy classroom.
(The coordinating conjunction but creates the transition.)
Many Americans propose that Creationism should be taught in the science classroom; however, scientists think it is better suited to the religion or philosophy classroom.
(The conjunctive adverb however combines these sentences. It’s similar to but; however, it shows more of a pause than but does. Read the sentence aloud. Do you hear that brief but thoughtful pause?)
Although many Americans propose that Creationism should be taught in the science classroom, scientists think it is better suited to the religion or philosophy classroom.
(The relative adverb although makes the first sentence into a dependent relative clause. This has the same overall effect as but or however, but the sentence is intoned differently. Do you hear it? Has the emphasis changed a bit? What is prioritized in this sentence?)
2. Keep the sentences separate, but put a word or phrase in the second sentence that refers back to the first one.
Many Americans propose that Creationism should be taught in the science classroom. Still, scientists think it is better suited to the religion or philosophy classroom.
(A single word can create a transition. Amazing isn’t it: the difference one word makes?)
Many Americans propose that Creationism should be taught in the science classroom. Despite this position among some religious communities, scientists think Creationism is better suited to the religion or philosophy classroom.
(A phrase or clause may be necessary if you want a more substantial connection.)
3. Insert an entire sentence between the two sentences to connect them.
Many Americans propose that Creationism should be taught in the science classroom. Such proponents include conservative-Christian parents, pastors, and politicians, but—since this is a discussion about science—we should ask what scientists have to say about the issue. The overwhelming majority of them think Creationism is better suited to the religion or philosophy classroom.
(Do you sense a bit more persuasive push here? Consider how the writer created this new tone. Also, apply this longer approach when you want a fully explained transition. Never hesitate to lay out all of the details, if you feel that it is necessary.)
So, do you want to use method 1, 2, or 3? Which one is best?
The answer, as you may have guessed by now, is that there is no best method. The method you choose depends on your intention as a writer and the degree to which you want to connect the two ideas or statements. And sometimes, you should consider unconventional methods, such as the transition I created in this sentence (yes, the one you are reading right now). Notice how I opened that new sentence with the coordinating conjunction and. Although I did not use it to fully combine two sentences (by using a comma + and combination), I started the new sentence with and to create a small reference back to the previous point. There are many other ways to create transition; as you continue to write and to hone your transitions, you will naturally add new transition tools to your writer’s toolbox.
At this point, some readers might be thinking, “Wait–I shouldn’t start sentences with words like and or but! My teachers constantly told me never to do that.” If you picked up this particular writing prohibition somewhere along the course of your life, you have been misinformed. Most people learn this false rule in elementary school or middle school, when such absolute rules held meaning for teaching children the basics of writing. But now as an adult writer, it’s time to progress beyond the rules of childhood writing so that you can embrace the limitless world of true effective writing.
If you feel your writing process being hindered and halted by such rules, you should read my new book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English. It addresses this sentence-starting conjunction myth, as well as many other writing myths learned in childhood. If you’d like to learn more, here’s a link to the book’s introduction:
Two Kinds of Sentence-to-Sentence Transitions: Positive vs. Negative
Here is one additional point to note about sentence transitions: there are two types of connections to make: positive and negative. In the examples above, we have been dealing with a negative connection, or one that shows a contradiction or difference between two points–what we might call but or however points.
Now let’s explore positive connections. Positive connections show the idea of “in addition to” or “also.” Positive transitions show how the two ideas you are expressing are alike. Here is an example:
Pastors and other religious leaders call for the teaching of Creationism in the science classroom. So too do many conservative-Christian parents.
Pastors and other religious leaders call for the teaching of Creationism in the science classroom, and many conservative-Christian parents do this as well.
Pastors and other religious leaders call for the teaching of Creationism in the science classroom; in addition, many conservative-Christian parents call for this practice.
Pastors and other religious leaders call for the teaching of Creationism in the science classroom. Following the example of their religious leaders, many conservative-Christian parents call for this practice as well.
Here are some words and phrases for expressing positive connections:
and in addition also another as well furthermore moreover
Negative: A transition that shows a contradiction or difference between two points. Here are some words and phrases for expressing negative connections:
but yet however conversely despite on the other hand although
So, here is the first question to ask yourself: “Is the connection I hope to show positive, or is it a negative connection?
Here’s the second question to ask: “To what degree (and with what tone) do I want to show this connection?”
Once you have the answer to those two questions, you will know what to do, so long as you remember some of these transition techniques.
Next Up: Dealing with Readers’ Counterarguments
Have you ever been reading an essay or article, and you find yourself disagreeing with what the reader says in a sentence or paragraph? Or did you find that the writer did not address a matter that you thought was important to the discussion? Did the writer’s failure to address such points cause you to disbelieve the writer’s main point? Or, even if you did buy into the main point, were you still a bit less convinced than you might have been, had the writer addressed those nagging points?
Well, dear reader, here’s some bad news: your readers will judge your writing the same way, since they will expect you to address their concerns, doubts, and disagreements—and if you don’t address those matters, chances are, your writing will not achieve full success.
But here’s the good news: there’s a technique for handling these matters in writing, and it’s a technique you can hone with practice. It’s a way not only to redirect the reader’s doubts and disagreements, but also to create even more transition and continuity in your writing. I call that technique “addressing counterarguments.” In fact, for the best writers, addressing counterarguments is often the driving force behind the flow of the writing: the way the writing progresses from paragraph to paragraph, discussion to discussion, topic to topic. Want to learn more? Click the link below.
Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).