Keep It Moving: Transitioning Between Paragraphs

By Matt Bieker

When writing your papers, it is important to transition between paragraphs accordingly.  Think of transitions as the tour guides of your paper. They guide your audience from one interesting point to the next, keeping them engaged and informed as they read, to ensure that the reader doesn’t get lost along the way. Poor transitions will confuse your audience, and instead of focusing on your analysis, they’ll be trying to figure out where they are and how they got there. Transitioning between key points in a paper is a subtle skill, but understanding the nature of how a paper evolves can give you some strategies that will apply in almost every circumstance.

Imagine that your paper is river and your audience is floating on a raft. Your body paragraphs are pools in the course of the river where water circulates and churns. Here is where you elaborate on the points you are making and let your audience consider things for a while before moving on. Transitions are the narrow straits in between pools where water moves quickly, and you are trying to make sure there are no unexpected bumps that might knock your audience off their raft. These transitional areas are passed quickly, but are necessary in keeping the river moving.

This is what we talk about when we refer to the “flow” of a paper. Flow is a term that applies to the logical progression of ideas in a paper. If you are writing about human characteristics of the gods in The Odyssey, the next paragraph might be a little confusing if you start writing about your top ten breakfast foods. This is the basic idea behind flow: do the points in your body paragraphs make logical sense in the context of each other and in the context of your thesis?

Making sure that your points follow a logical progression all begins with your thesis. Your thesis is the main point of the paper, and the map of the river that shows your audience what they should expect to see along the way. If you can draw a logical connection between a point and your thesis, this is an indicator that you are progressing smoothly. However, even if you’re sure that all the points you make are logically connected to your thesis, how do we make sure they move smoothly from one to another? How do we avoid rough patches between the pools?

Poor transitions between paragraphs are ones that seem too sudden, like falling off a waterfall: suddenly your audience is confused and somewhere totally different. Many people will attempt to transition between paragraphs using words like “however,” or “in addition.” While these words are good for showing the relationship between two sentences, they are not strong enough to move the focus of the audience between different points. In order to move the audience’s attention smoothly, they need to know what to expect.

The method I utilize for transitioning between points refers to a phenomenon in music called “expectation and resolution.” In music, you often expect a note to be followed by a certain other note, and if it doesn’t, it will sound “off.” We naturally expect things to resolve in a certain way, and it is very pleasing to our senses when they do. As in our river metaphor, if the audience sees a sign right before they leave one pool telling them what they will see in the next pool, they will be satisfied when that expectation is met.

This translates to writing in the form of a paragraph break. This is where the actual progression of the paper happens, and you as the writer can introduce the topic of the next paragraph in the final sentence of the paragraph before it. For example:

“David found himself confused by the old man’s message. However, since the train doors had shut right before he could ask him to explain, he feared he would never figure it out. That is, until he opened his front door when he got home.

There, sitting in the hallway mailbox, was a letter telling him to meet the same old man at his favorite park bench the next day, where he would explain everything!”

This resolves much better than if that second paragraph went off on a tangent about the neighbor’s cat.

Giving the audience an idea of what to expect, and then satisfying that expectation will create a smooth transition, and this principle can apply to almost any subject matter. If all goes according to plan, your audience will read right over your transitions and actively engage the next point without even noticing all the hard work you did to word the transition just right.

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