As we’ve discussed, the major purpose of writing is to communicate with an audience. Keeping that in mind means everything we do when writing a paper must be done for the benefit of whomever is reading. That’s hard; it means that sometimes, things that look perfectly fine to us or sound OK out loud will need to be changed because other people bring different ideas and demands to our writing.
It also means that we need to go out of our way to be helpful to anyone who’s sitting down to read our work. Every step of the writing process is built to help readers, from the title — which tells them what they’re getting in to — to the conclusion, which reminds them what they’ve read. Along the way, we use other organizational signs to let the reader know what’s going on.
Whenever we pause to signal the reader about what’s about to happen, we use a transitional word or phrase. Transitions are simply brief, common signals that are put in place for the reader. They are often one of the final things that a writer will edit and add in a paper.
The most common place to find transitions is at the beginning or end of a paragraph. In an essay, transitions signal that one piece of a paper is coming to a close or that a new section is about to start. Common transition lines include:
- First, we have to consider…
- A second point in favor of this proposal is…
- The next day, I started…
- Finally, I want to make clear…
Transitions often help provide a logical order to a piece. Logical order means that the writer has made decisions about how to organize the essay that they’re writing. If, for instance, I decided to write a paper about the ways to be a good student, I could likely think of dozens, maybe even hundreds, of pieces of advice. However, to write an essay, I would need to narrow that down, and then I’d probably want to list my top 3 (or 5, or 10) reasons in an order that would make sense to my reader. That’s what it means to put a paper in logical order. Every time you see a Top Ten list online, that writer has used logical order to organize her paper.
Transitions signal that logical order by reminding the reader where we are in the list. First, Second, Third, Fifth, Last, etc. all tell my reader what kind of progress she’s making. These words are small but important.
We also use transitions to show changes in time or location. For instance, in a narrative essay, you might want to let the reader know that you’re going to jump ahead from your first swimming lesson as a four-year-old to your gold-medal-winning competition at the 2025 Olympics. When you write, “Fifteen years later, I put on my Speedos and started to climb the pool ladder,” that date at the beginning of your sentence is a clear transition. Without it, the reader will be lost (and wondering what a four-year-old is doing in a Speedo swimsuit).
When a piece is written in time order, we say it uses chronological order to organize itself. Transitions are vital to chronological order; without them, your hopeless reader won’t know whether an hour or a day has passed.
Transitions also can signal to the reader that we’re about to encounter a different kind of information. For example, if I’m in the middle of providing facts about why everyone should wear a seatbelt, and I decide that a story is necessary to keep the reader’s attention, I might say, “Let’s consider an example.” This tells my reader that I’m moving from the lecture to the story.
Signals like this are important because readers tackle different parts of our writing with different levels of attention. They also help a reader figure out where a main idea, a supporting idea, or a minor detail might be happening in a piece. If you’ve ever had to read and analyze a text, looking for a main idea, you know that words like “First,” and “Finally” often signal that a major point is being made, while a tag like “For example” means that something smaller, an illustration or a detail, is about to be shared.
Use these signposts in your own writing to keep readers interested and focused.
Some kinds of writing require special transitions. For example, as we’ve already discussed, narrative writing will require the use of time transitions in nearly every case. You’ve got to name a time and give hints about the duration of an event when telling a story.
Example Writing also requires the use of transitions. Because Example (also called Exemplification or Illustration) writing uses logical organization, you’ll find that ordinal numbers are key to providing clear transitions. (Ordinal Numbers are numbers that demonstrate an order, or a position: First, Second, Third, Fourth, and etc.).
Comparison or Contrast writing requires a writer to provide transitions not just at the start of paragraphs but also within the text. In fact, in Comparisons, transitions carry the meaning of the paper. They are more than just organization: they actually tell your reader what you mean.
For example, if I’m comparing Tuesday and Wednesday, then I’ll need to use comparison transition words when talking about them. I might write:
Tuesday is the second day of the week, and Wednesday is the third day.
Without a comparison word, that’s a boring sentence that tells my reader almost nothing. So, instead, I could add a transition phrase:
Tuesday is the second day of the week, unlike Wednesday, which is the third day.
Yeah, still boring, but that’s because my topic is bad. At least now my reader knows that I’m saying this is a big difference between Tuesday and Wednesday.
Transitions are critical to good comparison writing.
Transition Word Resources
You can find great lists of comparison words in nearly every substantial grammar book and resource. I’ve listed a few below.
- Michigan State University, credited to Professors Gregory M. Campbell, Michael Buckoff, and John A. Dowell: https://www.msu.edu/~jdowell/135/transw.html
- This is an excellent resource with dozens of common transition words listed. The words are divided into different types/uses of transitional words and phrases.
- Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL): https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/574/02/
- This is a brief listing of the most common college-level transition words. There is also a short explanation reading about using transitions available at: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/574/01/