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).

Tricks of the Trade: Techniques All Good Writers Know–Technique Number One: Imagine and Project a Reader

Look again at the title of this article. I describe this writing practice as “Technique Number One” because writing for an actual reader is the driving force behind all of the other techniques discussed in this Tricks of the Trade series. Think about it: as writers, we should create flow in our writing for our readers. We use clear word choices to get our ideas across clearly to our readers. We use parallel sentence structures to help keep our readers on track. Essentially, good writing is all about the effects we have on our readers. Whether we’re making a sentence more concise and logical or making the choice to add a new paragraph discussion, every choice we make as writers is ultimately for the purpose of better reaching and winning over our readers.

But what does it mean to “imagine and project a reader”? It’s simple: when you write, don’t think so much about the many rules you have learned about grammar, spelling, sentence length, etc. Sure, those rules have their place (well, some of them do, anyway), but that place is secondary to a higher purpose: affecting your readers in the way(s) that you hope to affect them. With that larger goal in mind, consider the fact that an actual human being–or group of human beings!–will be reading what you are writing.

Think about who those human beings are. Are they Americans, or are you writing for an international audience? Are they adults, or are they children–or young adults? Do they have college educations? Are they informed on the topic–or do you need to get them up to speed? Are they religious or nonreligious—or is it a mix? What are their social and/or political views? Do they belong to a certain profession? Write with these considerations in mind.

Writing for Your Audience: An Example

In some cases, you will know a bit about your reading audience. For example, if writing an essay for an engineering professor, you know a bit about that audience. You know that your audience is well informed, and you also know the field in which your audience works. So, with that reader in mind, here’s the key question to ask yourself while writing that essay: “What is important to an engineer?” You might also ask yourself the broader question: “What is important to any professor?” With those points in mind, you’d best get your math right, you should present clear diagrams and research, and you’d better not have any typos. (After all, engineers are looking for a close attention to details, and that includes proofreading and keeping the writing typo-free!)

Last, but certainly not least, you will need to produce content that your audience (in this case, an engineering professor) will find intriguing but also one that is based on the lessons learned in the course. One great way to make that essay intriguing would be to go one step beyond what the professor taught you about the topic. If, for example, the professor taught you how to apply hydrodynamics to better understand plumbing installed in a skyscraper, then you might take that concept and apply it elsewhere by writing an essay on the hydrodynamics of underground structures. Would your professor like that move? Would she appreciate you taking what she taught you and applying it to your own areas of interest? Chances are, she would–but there’s also a chance that she would want you to stick with the core material in the course, including the applications. This is where knowing your audience is useful. Did you ever hear her say, “Plumbing is only one example of hydrodynamics at work. I challenge you to think of other areas where we see it.” If she said that (or something close), then it’s safe to say that you kn0w what to write for her.

Ever aware of my audience, I know that many of my readers are not college students. However, the same basic concept applies: if you know your audience, write accordingly. If you are writing to your boss in hopes of a promotion, think about your boss’s expectations. (You might also think about the larger company and its expectations.) If you are writing to a senator asking him to support your cause, consider his platform and his political philosophies. If you are writing a letter to a friend who has lost a parent, then write with your friend’s personality in mind. Think about what makes her laugh. Think about shared experiences that might cheer her up. Think about whether she is the kind of person who desires a show of sympathy in times of loss or whether she just prefers to talk about other (happier) topics. No matter the writing situation, use whatever you know about your reader to win that reader over to your desired effect for the writing.

(A related note for college students: As a professor–and as someone who knows many other professors–I can say that most professors like to see their students take core concepts beyond what is taught in the course. This is one key difference between high-school-level thinking and the thinking we expect to see in college-level work: while professors do want to see students learn facts, those facts are often worthless if they are not applied elsewhere. Most professors are not looking for regurgitation of basics; we are hoping that our students take the lessons of the course to heart and allow those lessons to change the ways that they think about other matters.)

But What if I Don’t Know Who My Audience Is?

In other cases, you will have no clue who your precise audience is, so you will write for a broad audience. Here’s the good news: there are many writing practices that work for all audiences. In such cases, the only assumption you should make is that your reader will be attentive and will try to read your essay fully and carefully. In other words, the one thing you do know is this: your reader is a reader.

So what it is that all readers need and appreciate? The best way to answer this question is to apply the “Golden Rule of Writing”:

The Golden Rule of Writing: Write for others the way that you would want them to write for you.

In other words, think about the kind of reading experience you would like to have when reading. You want to read writing that flows naturally and is easy to read. You want to read writing that is typo-free. You want to read writing that makes intriguing and even life changing points. You want the writer’s jokes to make you laugh (and you want them to be jokes that make you laugh until you piss yoursel—um. . . I mean, that make you laugh yourself silly!). With those points in mind, write to create the very same kind of reading experience you would appreciate if you were the one reading. Chances are, when it comes to basic expectations for the reading experience, your readers are a lot like you. Think about what those readers want, need, and expect–and write accordingly.

This is the number-one rule of all good writing. If you aren’t doing this, you aren’t really writing.

Next Up:

Transition: Making It Flow

As you read about the Tricks of the Trade techniques in upcoming articles, consider how all of these techniques fall under the overarching writing practice of imagining and serving your readers. The next article on creating flow and transition is a good example. As you read about ways to create transition in your writing, consider the reason for creating transition: to serve your readers with the same kind of natural, flowing writing that you would want to read.

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).

The Three Dimensions of Writing

In the previous blog, we considered John Trimble’s definition of effective writing: “Writing is the art of creating desired effects.” When applying that definition to persuasive writing, we have this definition:

Persuasive writing is the art of creating the desired effect of persuading readers.

Or, to shorten the definition . . .

Persuasive writing is the art of persuading readers.

So how exactly does a writer achieve persuasion? What is the anatomy of a persuasive essay? In short, you should think of writing as involving three aspects:

1. The writer (ethos)

2. The writing itself (logos)

3. The reader (pathos)

Every writer—or at least, every writer who wants to be successful—must consider all three of these writing aspects. They are all part of the rhetorical game. The writer wants to give a sense that she is an authority on the topic, or at least that she knows her topic well enough to write with some authority. At the same time, she does not want to come across as stodgy or inaccessible. Some personality (infused with a healthy smidgen of honesty) helps give the reader the sense that the writer is a friendly, sincere soul—but one who still knows her stuff. That’s ethos: the identity of the writer as transmitted through the writing.

What about the writing itself? Is it clearly written? Does the argument make sense? Does the argument ever contradict itself? Is the research cited pertinent to the writer’s arguments or points? That’s logos: the logic, unity, and essential clarity of the writing.

But even if the writer’s points are clear and well argued, who wants to read a dry, clinical list of pertinent data and formalized arguments? Writers win readers over not only by appealing to readers’ intellects, but also by evoking emotional responses. A good writer makes people think, but she also makes them feel. This aspect of style infuses otherwise dull facts and mute statistics with humanity and purpose. Emotional responses come in many forms. Does the writer want to make the reader laugh? Does she want readers to cry? Does she want her readers to be angry about the issue she’s discussing? Is she writing to shock her readers? Maybe she wants a bit of all four responses. That’s pathos: the emotional impact that the writing has on the reader.

The figure below shows these three essential aspects of writing. Consider the writing practices for achieving each effect. Also, while considering the image below, consider how there is an area where all three effects overlap. That area of complete overlap represents writing that balances logic (logos), character (ethos), and emotion (pathos). As a rule, that center of balance is where we want to be, although some writing situations call for us to emphasize some aspects over others. (For example, a lab report might be more logos-driven, while a personal response paper will emphasize a bit more ethos and pathos.)

The Three Dimensions of Writing: Ethos, Logos, and Pathos

The goal is to balance all three of these aspects in your writing. Experienced writers often achieve all three simultaneously. “Simultaneously? How is that done?” you might ask.

I’ll show you. Here’s an example from Bart Ehrman, one of my favorite non-fiction writers. These passages are drawn from the introduction to Ehrman’s book, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer. Ehrman writes,

When I was young I always found the Christmas Eve service to be the most meaningful worship experience of the year. The sacred hymns and carols, the prayers and praises, the solemn readings from Scripture, the silent reflections on this most powerful of nights, when the divine Christ came into the world as a human infant . . .

What moved me most, however, was the congregational prayer, which did not come from the Book of Common Prayer but was written for the occasion, spoken loudly and clearly by a layperson standing in the aisle, his voice filling the vast space of the cavernous church around us. “You came into the darkness and made a difference,” he said. “Come into the darkness again.” This was the refrain of the prayer, repeated several times, in a deep and sonorous voice. And it brought tears to my eyes as I sat with bowed head, listening and thinking. But these were not tears of joy. They were tears of frustration. If God had come into the darkness with the advent of the Christ child, bringing salvation to the world, why is the world in such a state? Why doesn’t he enter into the darkness again? Where is the presence of God in this world of pain and misery? Why is the darkness so overwhelming? . . .

“You came into the darkness and you made a difference. Come into the darkness again.” Yes, I wanted to affirm this prayer, believe this prayer, commit myself to this prayer. But I couldn’t. The darkness is too deep, the suffering too intense, the divine absence too palpable. During the time that it took for this Christmas Eve service to conclude, more than 700 children in the world would have died of hunger; 250 others from drinking unsafe water; and nearly 300 other people from malaria. Not to mention the ones who had been raped, mutilated, tortured, dismembered, and murdered.

No matter our position on the existence of god, the sheer power of Ehrman’s prose is undeniable. It possesses a moving level of sincere frustration (ethos), and Ehrman presents some shocking numbers (logos) to give reasons for his frustration–and perhaps to transmit some of that frustration to the reader (pathos). In short, this writing represents a perfect fusion of all three writing aspects.

Four Essentials for Effective Writing

Here are John Trimble’s four essentials for winning readers. Consider how Ehrman’s writing in the passage above exhibits all four of these essentials:

1. Have something to say that’s worth their attention.

Ehrman’s discussion presents a topic that is relevant, for religious and non-religious readers alike: considering human suffering in light of popular religious beliefs.

2. Be sold on its validity and importance yourself so you can pitch it with conviction.

Can you feel Ehrman’s conviction in the writing–writing that is based on his life experience?

3. Furnish strong arguments that are well supported with concrete proof.

Consider the specific numbers that Ehrman presents. Notice that he presents a range of examples by discussing different forms of human suffering.

4. Use confident language—vigorous verbs, strong nouns, and assertive phrasing.

Verbs like affirmrepeated and mutilated are–without a doubt–vigorous verbs. Strong nouns include reflections, darkness, frustration, and misery. We hear assertive phrasing, for example, when Ehrman writes, “Yes, I wanted to affirm this prayer, believe this prayer, commit myself to this prayer. But I couldn’t.”

These are the elements of any successful writing strategy. Consider how Trimble’s four essentials are building blocks for producing ethos, logos, and pathos in our writing. Those three effects–those three dimensions of writing–create persuasion: the core “desired effect” of persuasive writing.

Next Up: All About Commas

One key to producing the desired effects of writing is having control over the movement and tone of a sentence. Punctuation is how writers do this.

Perhaps the most confusing punctuation technique is also the most frequent: the comma. The next part of The Writer’s Toolbox will help you understand the comma and its applications so that you can add this useful punctuation tool to your writing toolbox.

If you want to see the comma made simple, read on!

Here’s the link:

Works Cited

Ehrman, Bart D. God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important QuestionWhy We Suffer. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.

Trimble, John R. Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to Christopher Altmaneveryday 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).