On the use of transition words and phrases in your writing

Words can be magical tools for creating meaning and relating ideas. The right tools can transform your writing from basically getting the job done, to being elegant, well-crafted and persuasive. One of these tools – a fairly misunderstood and under-rated one in my view – is transition words or phrases.

Transition words/phrases are those which connect different parts of your text together, and indicate connections and that awfully vague thing, ‘flow’. Think here of ‘however’, ‘on the one hand’ and ‘on the other hand’, ‘furthermore’ and so on. In undergraduate writing courses I used to teach, these were presented to students as lists (see below for a typical example).

Students were generally told that they needed a selection of the right transition words in their text – varied but not too varied – to make their writing coherent, interesting, and engaging to the reader. In most cases, this was all that was said about them. So, many students (as witnessed in their writing), got the message that transition words must be used to make writing less boring and flat. They were seen as a discrete tool, and not clearly connected to authorial voice or positionality in text. They were also, therefore, often misused. I read a great deal of postgraduate writing these days, as well as papers being prepared for journal submission, and often observe that transitional words and phrases are misused, or at least poorly used considering their potential power in transforming our writing. The wrong message seems to have been passed on.

I am going to argue that transitional words and phrases need to be understood as connected, very closely, to authorial voice and positionality. They help you, in other words, to position your study and your argument in relation to the studies and arguments you are citing and building on (or critiquing) in your work. Thus, before you selecting from a list a word that sounds right, just because you need to have transitions in your text (something I think especially undergraduates may do), you need to understand the work that transitions actually do in creating a coherent text. This will enable you to make better choices, and begin to see the role that writing tools like this play in text creation. They are not discrete and stand-alone in any way.

Firstly, transition words can be used, quite powerfully, to indicate your position on, or view of, the work of other scholars in relation to your own work. Look at this example, taken from p.728 of a paper by Susan Carter.

Categorisation into genre usefully signals expectation as to what kind of social practice is being critiqued, interrogated and refined. Literary genre categorisation demonstrates this. Revenge tragedy implies an imbalance of power that renders justice by law impossible. Feudal loyalties demand vengeance. It is a masculinist genre. Women, passive and peripheral, will have their name linked with frailty. Women are usually efficacious in comedies, however. Because these end in marriage, and because women bring to marriage the futurity of unborn children and the renewal of society, they are a little more causal in comedies. They come to represent the natural world with its own problematically essentialist and positivist truths. The marriages of comedy typically reinstate patriarchy, but women are enfolded within it rather than drowned off stage. Genre categorisation enables analysis that penetrates into the social efficacy of literature. Tragedies typically comment on male loyalties and homosocial responsibilities; comedies, on heterosexual power relations, intergenerational responsibilities.

Let’s rewrite with no transitional words (highlighted in orange).

Categorisation into genre usefully signals expectation as to what kind of social practice is being critiqued, interrogated and refined. Literary genre categorisation demonstrates this. Revenge tragedy implies an imbalance of power that renders justice by law impossible. Feudal loyalties demand vengeance. It is a masculinist genre. Women, passive and peripheral, will have their name linked with frailty. Women are usually efficacious in comedies. These end in marriage, and women bring to marriage the futurity of unborn children and the renewal of society. They are a little more causal in comedies. They come to represent the natural world with its own problematically essentialist and positivist truths. The marriages of comedy typically reinstate patriarchy. Women are enfolded within it rather than drowned off stage. Genre categorisation enables analysis that penetrates into the social efficacy of literature. Tragedies typically comment on male loyalties and homosocial responsibilities; comedies, on heterosexual power relations, intergenerational responsibilities.

I have again marked the implicated text in orange. Do you see what removing the transitions has done? Each sentence now reads more like a statement – it is to be taken as fact in the way it is written. When you introduce the connectors, like ‘however’ and ‘but’ which are oppositional or point out an alternative or contrary view, and  ‘because’ which is causative, you introduce the writer to the reader. In text one, you can hear Susan making an argument, through her use of transitions.

Women are usually efficacious in comedies, however. Because these end in marriage, and because women bring to marriage the futurity of unborn children and the renewal of society, they are a little more causal in comedies.

She is making a claim in the first sentence, and showing you why this claim has validity in the second.

In the second text, with transitions edited out, it is harder to hear Susan-the-author making an argument:

Women are usually efficacious in comedies. These end in marriage, and women bring to marriage the futurity of unborn children and the renewal of society. They are a little more causal in comedies.

These are presented here as simple statements, drawn from a neutral, invisible source. From this simple example, then, you can hopefully see how using transitions is about more than simply writing a text that is pleasant to read. Transitions, used carefully and judiciously, place you as the author visibly in your text, as you craft and defend your argument.

Secondly, they do also create a text that is more pleasant to read, as they make your authorial voice clearer. Look at this example from p.414 of a paper by Sara Cotterall.

Viewing doctoral learning as participation in a (scholarly) COP highlights the centrality of writing in scholarly activity, and focuses awareness on how, when and where writing is attended to in the doctorate. The COP perspective suggests that newcomers’  writing expertise will develop as they observe experts writing and produce their own texts, supported by advice and feedback. Therefore doctoral students’  access to such opportunities is critical. However, in addition to practice, writing expertise also depends on familiarity with the perspectives, discourse and resources of the COP. How are doctoral researchers encouraged to acquire this awareness? Finally, the COP perspective is based on the notion that learning fundamentally changes who a person is. If we accept that doctoral education is ‘ as much about identity formation as it is about knowledge production’  (Green 2005, 153), how does doctoral writing contribute to the construction of scholarly identity?

Let’s take the highlighted transitional words and phrases out, and see how it feels to read both versions.

Viewing doctoral learning as participation in a (scholarly) COP highlights the centrality of writing in scholarly activity. It focuses awareness on how, when and where writing is attended to in the doctorate. The COP perspective suggests that newcomers’  writing expertise will develop as they observe experts writing and produce their own texts, supported by advice and feedback. Doctoral students’  access to such opportunities is critical. Writing expertise depends on familiarity with the perspectives, discourse and resources of the COP. How are doctoral researchers encouraged to acquire this awareness? The COP perspective is based on the notion that learning fundamentally changes who a person is. If we accept that doctoral education is ‘ as much about identity formation as it is about knowledge production’  (Green 2005, 153), how does doctoral writing contribute to the construction of scholarly identity?

Without any transitions, the text reads less smoothly – there is just a series of statements. The writer is not connecting these together for the reader, to show complementarity or opposition of the viewpoints or arguments selected as evidence or information for their own argument. So, there is no clear authorial voice, and there is a ‘jumpy’ text that relays information without indicating the value of, or relationships between parts of, the selected information.

crocheting-1479217_640

Transitional words and phrases are powerful tools for crafting coherent writing that positions you as the author within in your text, as you craft your argument in relation to the field you are working within. They are part of a writing toolbox that helps us to make and position our own argument, and highlight our contribution to knowledge as we weave the different strands of our thinking into a coherent paper or thesis. Thus, rather than simply selecting from a list, think carefully about what you want to say, how to connects to what other scholars are saying, and where you want or need to position yourself. Then choose the words or phrases that best capture your intention. Play around with different options – writing is a creative act that requires trying and failing and trying again. But as you play, keep your eye, always, on your argument, and how it relates to the work of other scholars in your field.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.