So far we have mostly looked at paragraphs in isolation. In an essay, however, we need to link our ideas together. This page provides a few tips to help you craft strong paragraph transitions.
The Weakest Link
Let’s first review what not to do.
1. Don’t introduce your next point too early. Don’t end a paragraph by announcing what you will talk about next:
… In the next paragraph, we will see how the teaching of phonics can help young children diagnosed with ADHD.
(¶) Some researchers have argued that if all students were taught phonics we would have fewer cases of ADHD.
2. Avoid cumbersome expressions:
Expanding on the aforementioned point …
With regard to the argument that …
Despite what I have described in the previous paragraph …
If you would never say these things in an ordinary conversation, think twice about writing them down.
3. Be careful when you use words such as another, also, further, or moreover. These words merely state, here is an additional point about the same subject. They say very little about how the two paragraphs are actually connected:
… Electric armor on a tank would thus vaporize an incoming rocket-propelled grenade.
(¶) Another interesting technology that is being developed is the wireless charging of electronic devices.
In this example, both paragraphs are about new technology, but that’s about the only connection.
4. Watch out you don’t let other people’s ideas take over your topic sentence. While it’s okay to start or end a paragraph with a quotation, it’s also risky:
… In Greece, marriage between first cousins is generally frowned upon.
(¶) By contrast, Sue Blundell points out that “[i]n Classical Athens, close-kin marriages were relatively common” (120).
(Blundell, Sue. Women in Ancient Greece. British Museum P, 1999.)
If you do decide to use a quotation to make a transition, be careful that the reader doesn’t lose the thread of your argument.
The key to a strong segue is the impression that each paragraph builds upon the last. Whether it provides a counterargument or strengthens and deepens a previous point, it is important that we feel a sense of development.
Take the following transition:
… Given that Fantastic Mr. Fox explores the differences between urban and natural living, it is not surprising that the film opens with “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” an homage to the “land of the free.”
(¶) The film subsequently uses the Beach Boys classic “Heroes and Villains,” which provides a more nonsensical perspective on the subject of the wild frontier.
Both paragraphs are clearly trying to determine what the songs in the film share in common.
Sometimes the transition is more abrupt. Here is an example of a literary analysis that picks up on the conclusion of the first paragraph to make a new point:
… The Man Who Was Thursday is subtitled “A Nightmare” precisely because the universe can easily seem absurd.
(¶) Surprisingly, for Chesterton it is this absurdity that paradoxically proves the existence of God.
No matter whether your transitions are subtle or sudden, you want your paragraphs to act like building blocks: the more you pile on top of each other, the further you can see.
As always, we prefer a natural, flowing style, and so we suggest that you keep formulaic transitional expressions such as however or nevertheless to a minimum.
Often the connection between paragraphs can be left implicit. Take the following example:
… My grandmother’s total fortune came to $900,000.
(¶) However, when she passed away in 2015, I received only an old photo album.
To make the transition more natural we could pick a different word (unfortunately, sadly, yet). We could also remove the transitional expression (however) altogether, as the reader will immediately see the connection.
Such minimalist transitions are especially common in two places: right after the introduction and before the conclusion.
When you conclude an essay you can a leap from the last detailed point to the overall argument. While you might use a transitional phrase such as “therefore” or “what we have seen then,” you can rely on your reader to notice that you’re starting your conclusion. The blank space after the conclusion makes that abundantly clear.
Similarly, after the more general thesis statement, the first body paragraph has to start somewhere specific, and so the linkage can be more casual:
… In Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock the playing of Ombre conveys the poem’s theme of sexual conquest.
(¶) Ombre is a trick-taking game, played by three people at a time.
The entire essay is about the significance of Ombre, and so the first paragraph begins by explaining the basic rules of the game. A less confident writer might have used the following topic sentence:
In order to see the symbolic significance of Ombre in the poem as a whole, the first thing we need to understand is the rules of Ombre.
Such a sentence is unwieldy and redundant. Just cut to the chase.
Each paragraph needs to link up not only with the previous paragraph, but also with the thesis of the essay. It can be helpful to repeat a key word from the thesis or simply remind the reader directly how far the argument has advanced. While you want to minimize expressions such as “what we have seen thus far,” you may sometimes want to summarize some previous paragraphs before moving on.
In the end all the advice on this page comes down to this: great transitions are invisible. The real aim is to let the reader focus on the flow of ideas. And, of course, no amount of rewriting will help a weak argument.