Tricks of the Trade: Creating Transitions between Sentences

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 Christopher AltmanToolbox 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).

Myths We Learned in Grade School English: The Book!

On The Writer’s Toolbox, I had written a series of blog articles on a matter that I called the Myths We Learned in Grade School English. As its title implies, this series of blog articles attempted to introduce, explain, and debunk writing myths that many people are taught as children by well meaning teachers.

For example, the prohibition “Do not use contractions in serious writing” is one such rule that most “serious” writers ignore completely. Consider other writing myths learned in the classrooms of childhood–myths such as “Don’t begin sentences with conjunctions like and or but” or “Never use the first-person pronoun I in serious writing.” Or how about this one: “Never begin a sentence with because“? How do skilled writers manage to violate these rules, while most average writers feel bound by them?

The Myths blog series answered that question as it delved into a number of grade school writing myths. My readers were definitely interested–and they still are. While glancing at the traffic on my WordPress account, I have noticed that many visitors to my (still) humble blog have been reading the Myths articles. Nothing could please me more.

Well, I have good news and bad news for my dear readers. I’ll start with the bad news: I have removed the Myths series from the blog.

The good news is the reason I have removed the Myths blog articles: I am publishing Myths We Learned in Grade School English as a book!

Myths We Learned in Grade School English will be available for purchase through Kona Publishing and Media Group in August, 2013. Although Myths is being marketed as a college composition textbook, it will be available for individual purchase on Kona’s website. If you are interested in purchasing this book now (whether for your own reading or for teaching a course), then feel free to order a copy using the directions posted at the end of this article. In the meantime, I thought my readers might want a small taste of this book, so I have included the book’s introduction and table of contents below. (Go on–check it out!)

I appreciate your support, your feedback, and–most of all–your readership.

–Chris

Myths We Learned in Grade School English: Contents

Introduction

Myth 1: The Myth of the Run-on Sentence—“Don’t write long sentences.”

Myth 2: “Never begin sentences with coordinating conjunctions like and or but.Altman

Myth 3: “Do not begin sentences with because.”

Myth 4: “Never use the pronoun you in serious writing.”

Myth 5: “Never Refer to Yourself Using the Pronoun I.”

Myth 6: “Never write sentence fragments.”

Myth 7: “Don’t—um . . . Do not use contractions in formal writing.”

Myth 8: “The Five-Paragraph Essay: Training Wheels for Young Essayists”

“Honorable Mentions”

Conclusion: “The Real Rules Practices of Effective Writing”

Appendix

Further Reading

 

Introduction

Does this sound familiar?—

You sit down to write a cover letter for a job application. Your plan is to write a detailed yet convincing interpretation of your work experience and education. But in a sad twist of irony, your education is the very experience that is halting your progress on this cover letter. You pause at the third sentence, unsure how to proceed. As the cursor sits there blinking at you, all you can hear in your mind is the voice of your fourth-grade English teacher, telling you what never to do when you write:

  • “Do not write long sentences. Those are run-on sentences.”
  • “Never begin sentences with coordinating conjunctions like but or and.”
  • “Never begin sentences with because.”
  • “Do not use the personal pronoun you in serious writing.”
  • Do not use contractions like don’t in your writing.
  • “Never write sentence fragments. You must always write complete sentences.”

You’re paralyzed. Your train of thought has derailed completely, and all you can think about is whether you’re being “grammatically correct” when you write. (And you still feel that you are just as much of an outsider to the Grammatically Correct Club as you were in the fourth grade, staring blankly at the comments scribbled on your essay.)  It’s enough just to worry about one concern—like run-on sentences—but since your fourth-grade teacher demanded that you obey all of these rules, you wonder how on earth you can obey all of them and still manage to say what you want to say in this letter. After all, if you were judged as a fourth grader for making these errors, how much more severely will you be judged as an adult? What will this employer think of you when they see these mistakes? How could you make such mistakes anyway? Who taught you how to write? How can you expect to call yourself a professional with improper, illiterate writing like this? The end of the second sentence still sits there, the cursor sitting in front of it like a wall, taunting you, daring you to write further without embarrassing yourself.

You do manage to move on with the letter, but you move on in defeat. You write only short, choppy, but safe sentences. You think to start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction to create transition—in the same way that you would pose a sentence in spoken conversation: naturally. But you kill your natural writing for a sentence that has no transition and flow, one that you hope that the reader will simply grasp as stemming from the previous sentence. You are playing it safe, and instead of really expressing your passion for this position, you end up writing just like you always have: you write a letter that is dull and formulaic—and, even then, you are still afraid you made mistakes you could not detect.

Most children begin their development as writers by being given lists of rules. If you learned these rules, you probably learned them from trusted teachers, most likely during grade school or middle school, but perhaps you learned them as late as high school. If you are still trying to follow these rules, you probably get the sense that following them is often unrealistic—and even damaging—for your writing. You feel a profound sense of relief whenever you write informal, personal prose, if only for the reason that you are able to ignore these rules and write like yourself. You get the sense that journalists and award winning authors have found some secret way around these rules, for such expert writers break these writing taboos quite frequently—and to great effect. You have an overwhelming sense that there is a bigger, better world of writing, but you have an equally large sense that you can never enter that world.

Fret no more, dear reader. I write this book to free your writing process of these rules, learned from those who are trained to teach writing to children—not to adults.

You might think, then, that I have written this book to make these rules simple—to teach you easy ways to follow all of these rules. But what if I told you that these so-called rules aren’t really rules at all—that most of them are false rules that no longer apply to our writing as adults? What if I told you that most of these rules that hijack your writing process are false, and that the best step you can take to improve your writing is to drop those rules completely?

At this point you might be thinking, “Are you saying that these rules—taught to me by trained, trusted educators—are lies?”

Not quite. I call these rules myths (and not lies or untruths) because, like myths of old, they contain some truth, although they are not to be considered wholly or absolutely true. Consider the ancient myths of Western culture—for example, the myth of Achilles. Of course we know that Achilles is a fiction: that there was never a man who was invincible with the exception of his heel. That said, we do find some truths within this fiction. Achilles’ story teaches, among other things, that overestimation of oneself leads to loss, and that everyone—no matter how great—has some weakness. This same lesson persists today, in other narratives. Superman’s vulnerability to kryptonite is a modern retelling of Achilles, while Samson losing his strength with the loss of his long hair is a Judeo-Christian telling. Speaking of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the oft-told tale of the Garden of Eden expresses a truth about humans’ desire to seek knowledge, even (or perhaps especially) when it is forbidden. The myth of Icarus communicates the devastating consequences of arrogance and overreaching ambition. While none of these stories is true, they do express truths.

Similarly, the myths we learn about effective writing in grade school English class contain some kernel of truth. However, these myths are too often considered absolutes, and instead of being instructive, they become stumbling blocks to effective writing. Although perfectly acceptable for eight-year-old children, many of the writing practices we learn from the teachers of childhood should change—or perhaps disappear altogether—as we develop, both as writers and as people. To stay in the confines of these pseudo-rules is the equivalent of a thirty-four-year-old man entering the Tour de France on a pink kiddy bike with training wheels and handle tassels (white-and-pink-striped handle tassels, no less!). Like the hindered (and somewhat curious looking) cyclist, you will not go very far in your writing if you continue to practice the conventions of childhood.

Are you interested in knowing the truths to be found in these rules and why so many grade school teachers express these rules as absolutes? Would you like to drop these myths from your writing process so that you can write with a liberated, unfettered mind?

If the answer to either of these questions is “Yes,” then this book is for you.

Interested in ordering Myths We Learned in Grade School English?

Here’s what to do:

1. Send an e-mail to Kona at this address: orders@konapublishing.com

2. Include the book’s ISBN number: 978-1-935987-44-4

3. Specify the number of copies you are ordering. Multiple purchases (for classes) and individual purchases are both welcomed.

(I will post a link to the book’s page when Kona makes one available. Stay tuned. . . .)

Click below to return to “All about Commas”:

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. Mr. Altman writes a blog entitled The Writer’s Christopher AltmanToolbox, and he also produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York.

Mr. Altman is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College in Syracuse, New York.