Use Clear Transitions: Lesson #5 from Student Writing

This is post #4 in a series expanding the six writing & editing lessons that authors can take away from my writing students.


“Transitions are more than inserting the word ‘then’ or ‘next’ into your writing every so often. They’re the glue that holds ideas together. It was common for me to see student paragraphs that gave one example and then moved on to another without explaining the first or hinting that a new subject was coming. The students had to learn to practice their transitions, making sure they flowed naturally and logically from thought to thought instead of just hopping abruptly to the next idea. As you write fiction, are you also hopping from sentence to sentence or scene to scene? Work on using phrases and content to take the reader by the hand and smoothly guide them through the story.” –Original post

Student Problem #1: Omitting transitions

Some students completely skipped transitions. They would dump all of their examples into a paragraph without signaling their moves from one idea to another. Sometimes, they forgot transitions between main points, so their new points would start before it was clear that the previous point had ended. Both of these problems made it tricky to figure out what they were talking about. Fiction writers often do this, too. They jump from scene to scene or thought to thought, never pausing to explain how their sentences fit together. Don’t skip transitions! Make sure that you signal the beginnings and endings of your thoughts.

Student Problem #2: Overusing transitions

Other students used transitions constantly, eager to make the connections between their thoughts clear but not considering how their writing sounded. Over and over, I would see “however,” “then,” “next,” and similar words peppering a paragraph. The overused transitions didn’t always fit logically between the student’s points. Even when they did apply, they were often too obvious and too frequent. Fiction writers should also watch out for overused transitions—while stories don’t have the same sort of points and examples as essays, it can be easy to fill the story with too many time words like “then” and “next.” Keep your transitions both clear and natural; don’t overuse them.

Author Problem #1: Jumping scenes

Sometimes, I see authors jump from one scene in their main character’s day to something that couldn’t possibly happen next. An example: one minute, a fictional student is in class; the next, she’s talking at the bus stop with her friends. When did the scene in the classroom end? Did anything else happen before school was done for the day? When you don’t signal that you’ve moved your character in time and space, your reader will temporarily get left behind. You don’t want to disconnect them from the story like that, so make sure you clue them in to each move.

Author Problem #2: Neglecting summary

Hand-in-hand with the scene-jumping problem is that of neglecting summary. Remember, your writing needs both scene and summary paragraphs. Some writers throw off the pacing of their writing by ignoring this balance. If you only show the scenes, you miss the chance to explain what passes in the meantime. Not only that, your readers won’t get to experience the passing of time. They’ll be pulled from scene to scene in a disjointed manner when they could be living your characters’ lives along with them. Don’t let your story become a series of episodes instead of a coherent tale—use clear summary between scenes where applicable!

Fix #1: Put things in order.

You can’t clearly order your scenes and summaries if you yourself don’t know the chronology of your characters’ days. It may be helpful to keep a separate document or notebook where you can jot down the timeline of your characters’ days and activities. You don’t have to put every moment of their lives in the book, but when you see the big picture of each day, it will be easier to see which moments should be in scenes, which ought to go in summaries, and which can be excluded altogether.

Fix #2: Understand relationships.

Some kinds of writing, like descriptions or academic research papers, aren’t organized chronologically. It’s important in these cases to understand the relationships between your thoughts and sentences. This will help you understand how to order them and how to transition clearly and logically from one to another. Are you writing a description of a landscape? Order your paragraph visually and spatially: left to right, top to bottom, near to far, etc. Is your character defending their actions? They might want to start with their strongest excuses and work their way down. Maybe they’ll do the opposite, and save the best for last. You’re always in control of your writing—you don’t have to put your thoughts in a random order!

Fix #3: Hear how your writing sounds.

You’ve heard before that reading your work aloud can help with style and flow. It can also help with transitions. As you read, listen to the ideas, not just the sentences. If you were verbally telling this story or information, is this the way you would tell it? Would you jump from this sentence to that sentence? Would you clarify “next” or “however” that often? If your ear picks up any places where transitions are awkward or a reader could potentially get lost or confused, fix them! The easier it is to follow your writing, the more likely a reader is to stick with your story and clamor for the next chapter or installment.

My blogging hiatus is over! I’ll be publishing the last post on lessons from students on Friday, moving next week into grammar tips inspired by my Pitch to Publication and pg70pit entrants.

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