For maximum understanding, we organize material into sections, each containing related subject matter, and arranged in logical order. Transitions (from Latin, “across + go”) lead readers from the end of one section to the beginning of the next. They provide bridges and keep readers moving forward.
I was taught in school to put “seamless transitions” between sections so readers would not notice them. But we want readers to notice the sections. We tell them at the beginning what the piece contains, and as we change sections, we mark the new subjects. In other words, we keep reminding them of the map so they’ll feel guided.
Here’s the transition in the middle of a two-part column, organized around two paradoxes about torture:
“This is why torture is at its heart a political scandal and why its resolution lies in destroying the thing done, not the people who did it. It is this idea of torture that must be destroyed: torture as a badge worn proudly to prove oneself willing to ‘do anything’ to protect the country. That leads to the second paradox of torture: Even after all we know, the political ask at hand – the first task, without which none of the others, including prosecutions, can follow – remains one of full and patient and relentless revelation of what was done and what it cost the country, authoritative revelation undertaken by respected people of both parties whose words will be heard and believed.”
The author has buried the shift of subject to the second paradox in the middle of a paragraph, where readers will probably miss it. Remember that the beginning and end of a unit, such as a paragraph, are emphatic, but readers seldom notice or remember anything from the middle.
So how do we make effective transitions? They can be as simple as a word or phrase beginning the next section: “Meanwhile…,” “On the other hand…,” “Before the flood…,” “Third…,” “After your soufflé flops….” They can be as long as a short paragraph, or just a sentence, like this: “But official American definitions of torture may not have much valence offshore.”
Subheads enhance the power of transitions in drawing readers across section boundaries. Readers see them in their peripheral vision as they read down and begin thinking about whether they want to keep reading. Subheads should point forward. You could think of them as bait or cliffhangers.
I mostly write for publications and websites that don’t use subheads. I include them anyway to make sure that editors understand my structure.
You can write transitions that take up no space at all. You make the last sentence of a section sound like an ending, and the first sentence of the next section sound like a beginning. Here’s an example:
….So Jane swore off the male of the species permanently.
Looking around for something to do instead, she picked up her wicked pen.
Transitions help your readers understand by reinforcing structure.