Trouble in transit.
That’s what I call it when you’re writing something and have no idea how to get from point A to point B. You need to transition — maybe to the next point in your argument or the next event in a timeline — but you’re stuck. The segue won’t come.
This problem plagues many of us who work with words. Every time we write something, we have to figure out how to hop from one car on the train of thought to the next. From dialogue to description, showing to telling, explanation to argument.
If the train cars are paragraphs, transitions are the links and pins that connect the cars to each other 🚂. Skip a transition and you’re asking your readers to hurdle a gap between unconnected cars as the main train keeps plowing down the tracks.
Transitions are hard, but when done well, they’re also kind of magical. You can smoothly guide your reader from one type of discourse to another, drawing connections along the way that wouldn’t be drawn if you divided everything with section headings (like this blog 😬).
How Do You Write a Good Transition?
A lot of websites harp on transition words (we’ll join them in a moment), but honestly, good transitions have more to do with shaping your actual content to guide the reader in a particular direction. You use your knowledge of the subject and your writerly skills to order your content in a way that leads to natural transitions — sometimes with transition words, sometimes without.
Transition words have a utility, but if you don’t shape your content, slapping a “however” or “therefore” or “similarly” onto your next sentence won’t accomplish much.
Still, transition words deserve a look:
Transition Words and Phrases: Examples to Get You Started
Transition words concisely describe the relationship between concepts or ideas. With a single word, you can point out that what you’re about to say supports, is similar to, or contradicts what you just wrote.
A transition word may pivot the flow of thought — changing the direction of what you’re writing — or simply push the thought forward, continuing to build on what you’ve already said.
Here are a few examples:
Transition words tend to be found toward the beginning or end of paragraphs, at the head or tail of sentences. They’re generally setting up what’s about to come — either establishing the tone of a new paragraph or launching the reader from this paragraph’s idea to the next.
What you need a transition word to do depends on the type of segue you’re crafting.
Types of Transition Words
As I mentioned earlier, writing a good transition involves much more than choosing a transition word. You need to tap into the logic of whatever you’re writing — story, essay, research paper — and shape your writing to guide the reader from your train’s locomotive engine all the way to the caboose.
In any given piece, you may need to segue between ideas, subjects, or even time-based events. Here’s how those different transitions may look:
1. Time/Events ⏰
If you’re writing a story or a research paper for a history class, you’ll need to craft transitions that bridge points in time. Maybe you jump from the Renaissance to the Victorian era, or from spring to summer, or from evening to morning. As you craft your transition, tune into what you’re aiming to accomplish through this section of your writing.
- Are you drawing comparisons between the Renaissance and the Victorian era’s conceptions of manhood?
- Is the passing of the seasons meant to illustrate a bigger point? Perhaps how quickly or how slowly things change?
- Is your character conscious of the shift from evening to morning or does the new sunrise catch her off-guard?
One way to craft time-based transitions is to identify something that is either the same or different between the two points in time. This, of course, should relate to your project’s overarching theme.
- Was education highly valued for men in both the Renaissance and the Victorian era?
- How does the lack of water over springtime affect the appearance of the plain in the summer?
- Is your character still sitting at her desk, lost in thought, when the sun comes back up?
Depending on what you’re writing, a rich description highlighting either what remains constant across time or what changes may work well to transition your reader.
2. Ideas 💡
Writing an argument? You probably have several points to make, some obviously related and others that stand out like a zebra in a herd of horses.
How do you smoothly transition from one point (or idea) to the next?
First, identify how your points relate to each other.
Make a list of your points and arrange them in the most logical order.
- Do any of your points set up or build upon other points? Put the set-up points first.
- Do any of your points raise questions that are answered by other points? Put the question-raising points before the question-answering points.
Look for ways that the zebra points are similar to the others. Maybe they touch on a similar aspect of your topic — or maybe they’re the only point that addresses a particular counterargument.
Once you know the best way to order your points, use that ordering to shape your transitions.
- Points that build on previous parts of your argument may use a simple transition word like “additionally” to show how they relate.
- Points that answer a question or counterargument raised by the previous point can start by simply launching into that answer.
- Zebra points that don’t obviously connect to the others, but are important to your argument, can be introduced by mentioning the outstanding problem or counterargument they address after the rest of the points have been made.
3. Subjects 📚
In a research paper or explanatory essay, you’ll need to move from one subject to another within your overall topic. For example, if you’re writing about the evolution of the automobile, you may write about the engine, fueling, and tires. How do you leap from one of these topics to the next?
Use a similar method to what we described in the Ideas section: list the different subjects and identify ways they connect or relate to each other. Order them according to those connections.
Look for ways that one subject can “jump off” into part of another subject.
With our automobile example, the type of fuel may directly influence the engine, so maybe you talk about those two subjects together. Or maybe you describe the different types of fuel and then move on to cover how changing the fuel led to changing the engine design.
If you want to include an explanation of how the combustion engine works, that explanation could easily tie the two topic sections together — and even set you up to describe the exhaust system, which could lead into writing about vehicle pollution, catalytic converters, and electric cars.
4. Mixed Transitions
Most pieces of writing will require you to transition between the previous three types — from writing about an event to explaining an idea, or covering an idea to exploring a specific subject.
⏰ → 💡 → 📚
As with the other transitions, crafting mixed transitions requires intention in your writing. You probably can’t put things in the first order that comes to mind, and you may find that some elements are too unrelated. (In fact, going through this process can help you identify pieces that aren’t central to what you’re writing and could be left out.)
The same principles discussed in the other sections apply here:
- Look for similarities or differences. What does your time period have in common with your ideas or your subject? What is completely different?
- Identify ways that some elements set up others. What ideas gained momentum in the Victorian era?
- Pinpoint how different elements raise questions answered by the others. How has the development of car technology been shaped by environmental concerns (or the lack thereof)?
The idea is to find how the different pieces connect and then write your transitions to make those connections clear.
Mistakes to Avoid When Writing Transitions
1. Slapping a transition word onto a sentence with no extra thought.
Transition words only work if you make sure the surrounding sentences fit that word — if you’ve shaped the content to lead readers into the transition. Before you choose your favorite transition word to change the subject or move onto your next point, ask yourself these questions:
- Have I crafted the preceding sentence to set up my transition?
- Does it naturally lead to my next sentence?
If the answer to both is “yes”, you’re free to choose your transition word.
2. Overly relying on adverbs (see what I did there?).
As a reminder: adverbs are words that describe actions, and they often end in “ly”.
A few examples: relatedly, admittedly, firstly, lastly.
A lot of adverbs are also transition words. Because there are so many of them and they sound kind of formal, it can be easy to find yourself using them for every transition you write. But if you use “ly” adverbs for every transition, you’re bound to annoy your readers or accidentally pick up a sing-songy tone that undercuts your message.
How do you avoid this?
Once you’re done writing, run a document search for “ly”. If you’re overusing these words, cut or replace them with other transition words or phrases.
3. Using “so,” “next,” “then,” and other run-of-the-mill transition words every time you need to move on.
Another frequent offender is “but” (at the beginning of sentences) or its more formal cousin “however”.
It’s okay to use these words some of the time. But using them all of the time looks lazy and lacks creativity.
Just like you did with the “ly” adverbs, run a quick document search when you’re done with your draft. If you’ve used any individual transition word three or more times in a span of five pages, revise those transitional sentences (Wordtune can help!). You may need to mix up your sentence structures to set up for a better transition word.
Note: More unique transition words (e.g., despite, consequently) shouldn’t be used more than once in a shorter work.
A lot of writing is drawing connections between different ideas, time periods, and subjects — which means transitions carry a lot of weight. Put in the extra effort to craft your content with these connections in mind, and you’ll be well on your way writing to seamless transitions your readers don’t think twice about.
This article was co-written with Wordtune. Wordtune didn’t write the whole piece. Instead, it contributed ideas, suggested rephrasing alternatives, maintained consistency in tone, and of course - made the process much more fun for the writer.