How to Use Transition Words
A grammar expert offers tips about how to use transition words and choose better transition words for your sentences. Go beyond transition words like “first” and “next.”
Today, Bonnie Trenga will help us choose better transition words.
This article could make you a tad hungry, because today we’re comparing the art of writing to the art of making a sandwich. In fact, just for today, we might need to change the name of the show to Gourmet Girl. In this episode, we’ll examine how to transition smoothly from point to point so that the flavors of your sandwich—your nonfiction writing—meld together subtly.
How to Use Transition Words
Back in grade school, you learned the basics of writing. The normal structure of an essay was an introduction, three supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion. You might say you learned to create a run-of-the-mill BLT. Two slices of bread surrounded three clearly separated components: bacon, lettuce, and tomato.
For example, in an essay that answers the question “What did you do this summer?” a grade-schooler might use a topic sentence like this: “The first thing I did on summer vacation was …” Then he’d move on to “The second thing I did was…” You can imagine how his third supporting paragraph might begin. For third-graders, BLT-type essays might be perfectly acceptable. Their teachers don’t expect them to be gourmet-sentence chefs just yet.
As students mature, though, we must fear for them. They may not learn how to write transitions that are more masterful. Raise your hands now, grown-ups. How many of you would write a sentence like “The last thing I did on summer vacation was x”? I can see some hands there. Many adults have not progressed past the BLT sandwich. We therefore need to create a new recipe so that we can deliver a more satisfying reading experience.
How to Choose the Best Transition Words
Using transitions is an art, just as it is an art to create a “Top Chef” Tuna Sandwich with Sun-Dried Tomato Mayonnaise (1), for example. You don't want to put your readers to sleep with conventional transition words such as “first,” “second,” and “third.” Although these may be perfectly grammatical, we writers have many other transition words at our disposal. Sometimes we need to be more subtle than writing “The next thing I’m going to talk about is x.” Sometimes just a word or two delivered in the right place can change the topic or contrast one point with another.
What Are Good Transition Words?
The “Top Chef” program has introduced viewers to many odd ingredients. Whoever heard of semolina batard bread and Maldon salt, two ingredients in the artful tuna sandwich mentioned earlier? But you don’t have to be esoteric to create smooth transitions in your sentences. We’ve all heard of words like:
William Zinsser suggested using these transition words in his classic, On Writing Well, as a way to “alert the reader … to any change in mood from the previous sentence” (2).
Try out some of those words, which you may have been ignoring. You’ll likely find that the resulting sentences are more enticing than the obvious “The second reason I like chocolate is x” and “Then, she decided to x.” This article, for example, takes advantage of the words “but” and “though” to move fluidly from one idea to the next.
How to Use Better Transition Words
The next time you write something, try showing a little more imagination with your transition words.
You may not be able to whip up a fancy “Top Chef” sandwich, but next time you write something, you can show a little more imagination with your transition words. You can win at “Top Transition.” If you want to become an expert on transitions, check out Chapter 15 of Getting the Words Right, by Theodore Cheney (3), and Chapter 10 of Keys to Great Writing, by Stephen Wilbers (4). These guides will help you perfect the art. However, the best way to improve your transitions is to practice. Did you notice just now how that useful transition word “however” gloriously allowed us to change gears?
As with any piece of writing, the recipe involves two basic steps: Write a rough draft, and polish it until it gleams. For Step 1, you need to gather all your facts so that you know what you’re going to write about. When you create your first draft, it’s OK to slap together the components into a primitive sandwich. Go ahead and slather on the condiments (i.e., transition words) without worrying whether they'll spill over the sides of your bread (meaning you’re being wordy or redundant). It’s fine if your lettuce and tomato (grammar and word choices) are askew at first. But you won’t get five stars if you don’t tidy things up before you present the dish (your piece of writing) to your culinary customer (the reader).
When you arrive at Step 2, you’ll be focusing on the transitions you used in Step 1. Circle suspicious transition words such as “then,” “next,” and “first.” Rewrite passages tainted with this monotony. Granted, rewriting can be a chore; you often have to fiddle endlessly with sentences to get them in the exact right order. If you keep at it, though, you’ll get it. When you’re done, reward yourself with a yummy snack, perhaps a sandwich.
The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier & The Grammar Devotional
2. Zinsser, W. 2001. On Writing Well, p. 74. New York: HarperCollins.
3. Cheney, T. 2005. Getting the Words Right, Second Edition. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books.
4. Wilbers, S. 2000. Keys to Great Writing. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books.