Last week, I coached a writer who thought she needed a transition between every paragraph and the next one. Wrong. She also thought that subheads aren’t transitions. Wrong again. Let’s talk about transitions.
MIND THE GAP
Transitions (Latin across + go) move readers from one unit to the next. Readers make a decision whether to continue reading or not at each boundary, especially between sections. Transitions form bridges that lead your readers through your piece.
Let’s assume you’re writing in the traditional explanation model: a beginning and an ending that frame sections:
The beginning briefs readers on the journey they’re about to take through what you have to say, with you as a reliable guide. Then you orient them as you move from section to section by reminding them of the plan.
Suppose your sections are about (1) animals that walk, (2) animals that swim, and (3) animals that fly. As you move from part one, you might start part two with a transition like this: “Animals that live in water can use feet or flippers or fins to swim.” This sentence shows readers they’re in section two, on swimmers, as you predicted. Your reader feels guided, and keeps reading. Notice that this kind of transition does not come between the units, but starting the next one.
Of course, transitions can come between the units, and could be a paragraph or several paragraphs, especially in complex, formal documents.
SUBHEADS LIKE THIS ONE
Subheads divide the units, but draw readers across the gap between them. As people read, in their peripheral vision, they see a subhead coming toward them, and it influences their decision to continue. Subheads point forward, deeper into the text. Short and bright subheads have more pull on the reader. So minimum subheads might be: “WALKERS,” SWIMMERS,” and “FLIERS.” Or “IT WALKS LIKE A DUCK,” “IT SWIMS LIKE A DUCK,” and “IT FLIES LIKE A DUCK.”
IT SOUNDS LIKE A BRIDGE
You can also achieve transitions by form alone, by manipulating the rhythm and tone of endings and beginnings of sections. You write the end of a section to sound like an ending, and the start of the next section to sound like a beginning, like this:
….In fact, almost all animals can swim, no matter what appendages they have.
Flying, on the other hand, requires a special set: wings….
REACHING THE END
Finally, the transition from the last section to the ending should signal readers that the ending has started, perhaps like this: “In summary, ….”
Or this: “All these animals are superbly equipped to get from here to there in their own way, but we human beings….”
The word “finally” that began this section showed you that my ending had just started.
[How do you write transitions?]