The other day, I offered to help grade essays for a class of students who had written practice SAT essays. I instantly realized why I would never, ever, ever want to be an SAT essay grader for the Collegeboard. Reading through these horrible essays, I just put my face in my hands and wept. If I could give these students one tip though, it would be to learn to use transitions.
Transitions are oft misunderstood. Many people believe transitions serve to smoothly move between two separate ideas. While that’s true, most students never think beyond that. The important thing to realize is not that transitions seamlessly shift from one idea to the next but how they do this. Transitions do so by describing the relationship between two ideas. Just like you’d hope your mutual acquaintance would introduce you to the cute friend he brought along, the transition serves as the link between two thoughts. A transition is simply a good introduction of two strangers by a mutual friend.
WRONG WAY OF THINKING: transitions help you move from one idea to the next (this is just WHAT a transition is)
RIGHT WAY OF THINKING: transitions explain the relationship between two ideas (this is HOW a transition works), thus helping you move from one idea to the next
Without transitions, our world would be a dark, scary, and confusing place. Okay, not really. But without transitions, at least the essays you’d read would be dark, scary, and confusing. There’d be nothing to signal how or why the ideas relate to one another. Transitions help the author convey the logical thought process he wants his readers to follow.
“So that’s great, Peter,” you might be thinking. “I now know what transitions are, but what am I supposed to do with this valuable insight?” Let’s talk about why you should and how.
Why do you transition? Because transitions create flow in your essay. They help develop dynamic pacing with some faster parts, some slower parts, some more detailed parts, and some more general parts. In short, writing becomes a whole lot less boring.
How do you transition? Well, transitioning is like dating. It’s a powerful element to up your game, just like flowers will definitely win you the girl (right, ladies?).
So here’s how:
Pro Dating Tip: Address the guy/girl you’re interested by his/her name every so often. “You know, Peter, you are really cute. I like you for both your brains and your body!” (Hah! I wish someone actually said that to me.)
But don’t be like Fez in one of my favorite old TV shows, That 70s Show. “Donna, you have really nice eyes, Donna. Donna, do you want to come have dinner with me? The movie, Donna, is going to be incredible because, Donna, you’d be watching it with me, Donna.” That’s just creepy.
Dropping a transition here and there is like dropping someone’s name in conversation. You shouldn’t do it all the time, but it sure does feel nice when you do. You don’t NEED transitions all the time, but it sure will make your essay sound a whole helluva lot nicer.
In a previous post, I showed you how to transition between two paragraphs with my proprietary “Like” and “Addition” transitions. Now let’s focus on transitioning in smaller spaces, that is, within the same paragraph.
Sprinkle (not dump) a few of the following transitions in your writing. Obviously, this table is non-exhaustive. I’ve organized them by relationship type.
As a result
This lead to/leading to
On the other hand
On the flip side
As much as*
As much as*
At the same time
*Note: “As much as” can be used to show both support and opposition.
e.g. As much as he loved her, she hardly even acknowledged him. (opposition)
e.g. He loved her as much as she loved him. (support/similar)
Some of the transitions in the table are conjunctions (FANBOYS). If you think about it, it makes sense. After all, conjunctions CONNECT two clauses (ideas) together by showing the relationship between the two.
Let’s check out the power of transitions:
Every child should be given a small allowance. Children need money to purchase or do the things they want. They can hang out with friends. They can buy new toys. Having an allowance helps children develop a sense of financial responsibility. It teaches them to save and budget. Children can learn much about life in general from something as small as an allowance. Children really need an allowance to experiment with.
The paragraph above is sorely lacking transitions. It needs help. Enter Superhero Transition Man!
Every child should be given a small allowance because children need money to purchase or do the things they want. For example, they can hang out with friends or buy new toys. Having an allowance helps children develop a sense of financial responsibility by teaching them to save and budget. In fact, children can learn much about life in general from something as small as an allowance. Therefore, children really need an allowance to experiment with.
By the goddess! (Mass Effect video game reference, if you caught that. Long live Liara.) The transitions really make a difference, don’t they? Notice how much more fluidly the second paragraph reads compared to the original.
Sometimes, you can transition by combining two sentences or clauses together. For example:
“He went to the store. He bought a donut.”
can now turn into…
“He went to the store where he bought a donut.”
Having two short sentences versus one longer sentence will affect the pacing of your paragraph. Perhaps you want a more substantive sentence. Perhaps you are making a point by using short, punctuated declarations.
Transitions can also be invisible and implied! These are tricky. In fact, this concept is sometimes even tested in the Critical Reading section (usually as inference questions). Invisible transitions obviously use no actual words or phrases. Instead, these transitions are the relationships found by reading between the lines. Take a look:
One summer during my childhood, my parents shipped me away to Camp Parsons, a week-long wilderness camp in Washington. Although I tend to shudder at the thought of leaving behind modern luxuries like working toilets, electricity, and shelter from crawling insects, the camp turned out to be a greater success than I could have imagined. I experienced new activities I never would have been exposed to, much less realized, such as archery, skeet shooting, rappelling, and even scuba diving. I learned about environment conservation and created science projects. Some weekends, I even got to build my own tree fort – a fantasy of mine since I was six, since I’ve never lived in a house with a backyard – by tying various wood branches together using knots the counselors taught me.
There are a few visible transitions, but the invisible one is between “greater success than I could have imagined” and “I experienced new activities…” Why do I organize my sentences in this particular order? Because a good logical way to organize ideas is to first make a claim, then back that claim up.
I claimed that the camp “was a bigger success than I could have imagined.” Then I transitioned by describing what I mean by “success.” I never come right out and say “it was a success because…(whatever reason).” However, any sensible reader can figure out the purpose of the subsequent sentences: they illustrate a picture of success. The trip was successful because I got to experience many new activities. I got to fulfill a childhood dream of building a tree fort. I learned about the environment. All of these experiences were not something I expected to get going in, but I got them anyways.
So if transitions show relationships, then the invisible relationship is that my specific experiences at camp expound on what I mean by “success.”
To create an invisible transition, you simply set up your ideas so that they logically flow from one to the next. Start with a broad claim, then immediately follow up with some good follow up examples that back up your claim or further explaining your claim. You can also do the opposite—start with a bunch of specific examples that culminate in a final broad point.
Bottom line, use a good mixture of both visible and invisible transitions (but not too many). By showing that you can connect your thoughts together, you are demonstrating critical thinking and coherence. Congrats, you’re on your way to writing a cohesive essay.