Transitions

Sometimes, a paper will flow naturally from one argument or topic to the next. This is especially true of chronologically arranged papers, as writer and reader follow the trajectory of historical events. More often, though, students struggle to write transitions that will strike an audience as clear, logical, and seemingly effortless.

The challenge is all the greater, I think, because many of us never learned to write such transitions in high school. Instead, we began our body paragraphs with minor variations on a formula — "Another reason is ..." Sound familiar? Another works fine if you are drawing up a list. But in a college paper, your task is to consider how ideas are related, not to set them forth in a seemingly casual series.

For academic writers, the transitions between arguments can be almost as important as the arguments themselves. Consider what can happen when a transition is missing:

Science is the basis of all medical technology. Biochemists and pharmacologists take the latest findings from their research labs to develop new vaccines, while engineers apply the principles of physics to the creation of new imaging techniques. Even simple bandages are the work of materials scientists carefully balancing material properties.

Doctors only care if they can treat their patients ...

Here, the shift from the first paragraph to the start of the second is very abrupt, and there is no indication of the logical progression the author has followed.

The most basic transitions are conjunctive adverbs such as however, then, and therefore. These words generally imply a logical or chronological progression, and can thus be useful for demonstrating relationships between your arguments. Nevertheless (that's another one, by the way), these words by themselves are a bit flat and can feel forced.

Science is the basis of all medical technology. Biochemists and pharmacologists take the latest findings from their research labs to develop new vaccines, while engineers apply the principles of physics to the creation of new imaging techniques. Even simple bandages are the work of materials scientists carefully balancing material properties.

Doctors, however, only care if they can treat their patients

There is now some sense of connection and logical flow between the paragraphs. The word however implies a contrast, thus moving the discussion from one topic to the next. Even so, the transition still seems a little abrupt, in part because the new topic, medicine, displaces the old topic, science, so completely.

More natural transitions are possible if you connect the last few sentences of one paragraph to the first few of the next with shared ideas or vocabulary:

Science is the basis of all medical technology. Biochemists and pharmacologists take the latest findings from their research labs to develop new vaccines, while engineers apply the principles of physics to the creation of new imaging techniques. Even simple bandages are the work of materials scientists carefully balancing material properties.

Doctors, however, are not concerned with the science behind the technology, as long as they can treat their patients...

Here the transition is smoother. The opening of the second paragraph refers to the topic (the science behind medical technology) of the first. The logical connection is clearer than before, and the relevance of the second paragraph is more firmly established.

This style of transition may change the way you order the arguments in your paper. Feel free to shuffle your paragraphs around until you find an order that you like.

The next time you read a paper, pay attention to how the author uses transitions to segue from idea to idea, then try to apply what you find to your own writing.