The fourth expectation we have of effective essays is "takes the reader from one idea to another and organizes the ideas both within and between paragraphs."  I translate that to transitioning and order. 

When I was trying to think of how to help you visualize transitions, I considered many things.  Transitions are bridges connecting a series of islands; transitions are road signs that tell us what's up ahead; transitions represent change, morphing from one thing to another.  But all of those don't describe transitions completely.

Now when I say "transition," you may think of the traditional transition words and phrases such as "however," "in the meantime," "on the other hand."  These do serve as transitions, but it's a bad idea to always use the same type of transition in the same place in every paragraph.  Transitioning doesn't require using transition words or phrases.  You can do much more than just that.

First, let's look at the reason for transitions.  Imagine I am your reader entering a room blindfolded.  It is your room.  Depending on the methods you use to set it up and describe it to me, I may be able to negotiate around the furniture and know what's where, or I may stumble and bungle into things, hurting myself in the process.

Order is primary.  If your furniture is piled in in a big stack in your room, and you have piles of things here and there, it would be very hard for me to get through it, even if you do a good job describing it.  (This reminds me of our junk room before we had any kids.  It got to where we'd just open the door and toss something in and let it land where it may.  This might even describe your hall closet.) Things need to be in a logical order.  And then you need to describe them in an order that is logical for me.  It doesn't matter if it's logical for you; to communicate, you have to consider my logic.

There are several methods of order:

  • chronological (by time, beginning with the earliest date and moving to the last date)
  • sequential (by order of first to last -- which is very similar to chronological, but not tied to certain dates)
  • spatial (top to bottom, left to right, foreground to background, clockwise, etc.)
  • hierarchical (most important to least important, least to most, best to worst, worst to best, etc.)

Whatever order you decide to use, do so all the way through.

Now using my example of a room, if you were to describe it so that I can move through it, you would likely use spatial order. 

So you start with where I am standing at the door.  You could describe what is to the left of me or to the right of me or directly in front of me.  Since you should have a space right in front of the door, with nothing in it to say much about, it would be more useful to choose to talk about one side or the other.   This means you'll probably give me either the clockwise or counter-clockwise tour around the room.

If you don't have transitions, it won't help that you have a logical order.  Here's the tour without transitions.  There's a desk.  There is a trash can.  There are the closet doors.  There is a window.  There is my bed.  There is a night stand.  You might as well have it all piled in the center for all the good this does me.

However, here is the tour with transitions.  You might begin, "To your right is a desk."    "To your right" is a transition.  It recognizes that I need some point of reference to latch my idea of a desk onto.  It connects the desk with me where I stand.  If you were to start by saying "There is a desk," I have no reference point.  Because I am blindfolded, I cannot see the desk.  You are telling me something with no context.  You need to give me a direction AND you need to relate it back to what I already know.

So transitions serve two purposes:  they let the reader know where the material is headed, and they relate the new material back to the old material the reader knows.

Let's continue the tour:  Next to the desk is my trash can.  Just past the trash can are the closet doors.  My bed sits under the window on the other side of the closet doors.  Each new piece of information tells where and in relation to the last piece of information.  Notice the direction words:  "next to," "past," "under," "other side."  Notice the repetition of information.  The trash can, for example, is mentioned twice.  In the first sentence it's mentioned, it is new information.  In the second sentence, it is a reference point.

Now you don't have to do this sort of thing for every sentence, as long as the sentences within a paragraph do follow a logical order.  It's pretty much assumed that a sentence that follows another sentence within a paragraph is next in the order you've already set up.  But you need to do this sort of thing for the paragraphs, as you move from one paragraph to another.

Let's say you have an essay organized by importance.  If you want to build up to the most important, you'll have to start with the least important.  This is the way I worked up my article, "You'd Better Shop Around."  My point was taking just any karate class is a bad idea, that you need to look at three areas to determine if a karate class is right for you.  These three areas are (from least to most important) the cost, the physical safety, and the teacher's attitude toward the students.  (This is for you to know and for me to keep in mind as I write my essay; I don't actually put this information in the introduction.)

With those three areas to deal with, I would start my first body paragraph with something like, "One area you need to consider while checking out a karate school is the cost."  "While checking out a karate school" connects us back to the whole purpose of the essay.  "One area you need to consider. . . is the cost" directs us forward to what this paragraph is going to be about.

When I am ready to go into the second area, I would both tell what that second area is and remind the reader of what is already known:  either the main idea of the whole essay or what we just left.  "Another area important to check out is how the teacher protects your safety."  This one connects to the main idea of the whole essay.  An alternative transition could be "Even though the cost setup is important, even more important is the teacher's protection of your safety."  This transition reminds us of the paragraph we are just leaving and directs us to the information coming in this paragraph.

Not all paragraphs will work that way.  It depends on the paragraph's purpose.  For example, you might write a comparison/contrast essay in which you describe one thing in several paragraphs (transitioning between them), then put a short paragraph that all by itself serves as a transition from the original thing to whatever you're contrasting.  So if you were comparing your tiny Geo Metro with your husband's F-350 pickup, you could spend several paragraphs describing your Metro.  Then this paragraph: "If my Geo Metro represents the sanity of moderation, then my husband's F-350 must be the ultimate symbol of extreme self-indulgence, especially in these days of high gas prices."  The paragraphs after that, then, would describe the pickup.  So in this case, a whole paragraph has served as a transition.  And it's a very short paragraph (only one sentence).

So you see that transitions can be subtle guides for what's coming up, while often making a connection to what was in the past.


  This page last updated May 18, 2010, by Connie Gulick.