academic writing:  TRANSITionS

Have you ever read a "choppy" essay that jumps rather than flows from one idea to next? An essay might be choppy because the writer hasn't successfully sequenced the ideas to build upon each other, but more often it's because the writer hasn't used transitions successfully.


Transitions work like highway on- and off-ramps: they allow the audience to move from one idea to the next smoothly and easily. Most of these “ramps” are short--just a word or phrase--but they can be a sentence, a whole paragraph, or even longer.

Transitions also clarify the relationship between ideas. For instance, they signal if ideas precede (first . . .), follow from (as a result, consequently . . .), build upon (furthermore . . .), or oppose each other (however, but, yet, on the other hand . . .). Transitions can also signal which ideas are most central to the piece (most important, ultimately . . .).

TIP: Click here for a longer list of transition words and phrases from the OWL at Purdue. The headings in the list indicate other functions transitions can serve.

To see how transitions clarify meaning, consider these sentences: I try to eat healthfully. I eat a bit of candy every day. Are you confused? As written, the sentences seem to imply that candy is essential to a healthful diet.

Here are the sentences again, this time with a transition: I try to eat healthfully; however, I eat a bit of candy every day. Aha! The transition word “however” clarifies the meaning: it shows that the speaker recognizes that candy is not healthful.


TIP: Consider posting this list or the one from the Purdue OWL by your computer to remind yourself to use transitions; add to it as you discover more options.


As we saw in the example above, transitional words and phrases can help readers move smoothly from phrase to phrase within a sentence, or from sentence to sentence within a paragraph. Transitions can also help readers move from paragraph to paragraph within an essay. Let's see how.

  • Transitional Sentences

The topic sentence announces the main idea that will be explored in a paragraph. The topic sentence can also serve as a transition between the previous paragraph and the current one. Here’s an example: As a result of these labor strikes, Congress passed legislation to protect workers' rights. The initial phrase--As a result of these labor strikes--would refer back to what was discussed previously in the essay and the rest of the sentence--Congress passed legislation to protect workers’ rights--would indicate what is to come.

Transitional sentences are very helpful to readers. They signal when you are introducing a new idea (. . . legislation); establish the relationship between ideas (. . . as a result); and often connect the ideas in a paragraph back to the thesis statement. An essay with skillfully written transitions will feel "smooth" and "clear" to readers.

TIP: Read Effective Paragraphs for more information about organizing your ideas in your essay. <- COMING SOON!

  • Creative Transitions

Repetion: A writer might repeat a word, phrase, or sentence structure to create a transition. This might surprise you, because you've probably been told to avoid repetition when you write, and for good reason: unintentional repetition is usually dull to read. However, intentional repetition can be altogether different.

Listen to the excerpt below from Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr.’s lauded "I have a dream" speech and pay attention to the impact of the repetition of the phrase "I have a dream." Does the repetition emphasize the importance that King places on his vision? Does it etch the words upon your mind, ensuring that you won't forget them? Does it even help you envision this better world that you can help create?

Image "Clusters": Sometimes you can use related images to help readers transition between ideas. Imagine that I were writing a paper about the rise of the Civil Rights protests that followed Rosa Parks's refusal to yield her seat on a public bus to a white man. I might use images like these: Rosa Parks's arrest and the subsequent Montgomery bus boycott set ablaze tensions that had been smoldering for generations. If I provided analysis of the smoldering tensions, I might use related images like stoked, fueled, and flamed. If I examined the Civil Rights riots of the 1960's, I might expand upon ablaze with images like flames, white hot, ashes and--if my examination went far enough--even phoenix.

FINAL NOTE: If you're not in the habit of creating transitions, it might intially feel like it's a lot of work to figure out the best word or phrase to use. Remind yourself that transitions help your reader follow and understand your ideas, and maybe even remember them!