Writers: 10 transitions to make your copy smooth as butter (or margarine)

The words and phrases you use to get from one thought to the next really do matter.

Transitions: They’re those glasses that can turn into sunglasses, right?

Well, yes. But the term also refers to those phrases writers use to connect their thoughts together into something coherent. Without them, essays, articles and news releases would be a jumble of quotes, ideas and anecdotes, left to the reader to assemble into a narrative of some sort.

Not all transitions are created equal—try using “such has been” in a piece of modern writing, to stick with my Declaration of Independence kick here—and it’s worth knowing the when, where and how for some of the most common transitional words and phrases.

And so/In summation/In conclusion: Outside of formal writing—a research paper, speech, or perhaps an earnings report—an indication that you’re getting toward your conclusion, and perhaps mercifully wrapping this thing up, generally isn’t necessary. You don’t really have to announce your point, and if you do, it should come well before the end. So if you feel the need to start a sentence near the end of what you’re writing with an “and so,” you may want to consider reworking the beginning.

However/Conversely/In spite of this: A transition that shows contrast is a good way to add a little conflict to the narrative of your piece. Just don’t go overboard with them. If you notice that every paragraph kicks off with a “however” or a “despite,” you’ve gone beyond conflict and into full-blown ideological warfare.

Likewise/Similarly/Moreover: In the same vein (oh, look, another example of one of these transitions) as contrasting transitions, those that make comparisons help readers get a sense that a new speaker agrees with the previous one, or a new idea you’re introducing shares traits of the last one. But if everything in what you’re writing is the same, and you say it’s all the same, readers are going to wonder why it’s worth writing about.

Not long after/Soon/Then: If you’re telling a story that goes in chronological order, it’s beneficial for readers to get a sense of when something happens in relation to the last action. But it helps even more to give actual lengths of time, if you have them available. How soon is soon? A year? A few days? Minutes? If you know, say so. “A week later” says a lot more than “sometime afterward.”

Meanwhile: If an event happened concurrent to another, it’s worth letting readers know that as well, but “meanwhile” sounds like you’re the announcer on The Super Friends and “concurrently” sounds like you’re a robot. “At the same time” works just fine.

As a result/Consequently: You need to understand that these are loaded transitions. You aren’t just implying causation here, you’re explicitly stating it. So if the thing you just discussed isn’t the actual cause of what you’re about to discuss, of if you don’t know whether it is, don’t say it is. Just use “then.”

Incidentally/It just so happened: Again, these are words with strong meanings that get thrown around rather flippantly sometimes. If you use “incidentally,” it’s imperative that the circumstances you are describing were unplanned, and something other than your subject’s main goal. Something that was expected to happen can’t be incidental. And it generally doesn’t “just so happen” that the CEO’s nephew is the new vice president in charge of widgets. That definitely happened for a reason.

For example/For instance: These are to be used when you’re describing one of many of something. Picking out an example or an instance indicates you’ve selected from a large group of similar items.

Specifically: Unlike “for example,” this transition indicates you’re moving from talking about an idea or an object or a person in broad terms to getting into the details. You aren’t picking from a group of things, you’re focusing in on the one thing.

Anyway: “Anyway” is basically an apology transition. It says, “I just got off on a tangent, and a lot of what you just read didn’t really matter, but I’m now coming back around to information that is relevant to my eventual point.” Unless you’re Hunter S. Thompson, lengthy rabbit trails are something you should avoid in your writing, and so is the word “anyway.”

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