Tag Archives: Transitions

One Year On

Tomorrow will be the first anniversary of this blog, so I wanted to take this opportunity to thank you all for reading and commenting and sharing. Over these twelve months, I’ve had 60 posts and somewhere in the range of 20,000 views. The most viewed post is the one on reverse outlines, which has been viewed almost 1,000 times. Since I often identify the reverse outline as the most important writing tool available to us, this number makes me very happy. The other tops posts are the one on transitions and the one on using writing to clarify your own thinking. But why am I pointing you to the most popular posts?! I should be directing you to the least viewed post of the year: something from September on the role audience plays in our anxiety about writing.

It has been very gratifying to see how many people have added the blog to their blogrolls or otherwise shared my posts with their own followers. But in looking over a year’s worth of stats, I was most interested in one number: the number of times readers have left my blog to visit places I have recommended or linked to. I am delighted by the approximately 3,000 times that readers have gone elsewhere from my blog; the most frequent destinations are The Thesis Whisperer and Grammar Girl, both excellent choices. Since the Internet often has exactly what we need amidst thousands of things we really don’t need, I’m happy to be part of helping people to find the good bits.

I’m looking forward to another year of blogging. My plan is to carry on in the same vein: one week, a post on a topic in academic writing; the next, a post commenting on discussions of academic writing found in blogs and other online sources. This plan will carry on for some time, but I would love, at some point, to add a more general and responsive discussion of writing. In the classroom, I find it very helpful to give students some non-directed time with examples of academic writing. A class discussion of a particular issue will involve many related examples, all designed to allow students to apprehend the problem. However, unsurprisingly, this apprehension doesn’t end all difficulties with that issue. There is a subsequent—and much slower—step: developing the ability to diagnose writing issues without the prompt of knowing that the writing is being looked at with a particular issue in mind. I would love to add a new feature to the blog that might help to develop that ability: I could present a passage—one that hadn’t been selected to exemplify any particular issue—and then see how it might be improved in a range of ways, drawing on topics discussed in previous posts. Look for that feature once I’ve exhausted all the foundational topics I need to discuss and think about whether you have any troublesome passages of your own writing that you would like to share for online analysis and revision. And, as always, if you have questions or topics you would like to see me discuss, just let me know via Facebook or Twitter or via the blog’s contact or comment functions.

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Bad News, Good News

During one-on-one writing consultations, I often find myself using the following phrase with students: ‘bad news, good news’. Of course, it is more natural to say ‘good news, bad news’, but I like to start with the bad news. I don’t do so to be discouraging, but rather to emphasize that the first impression given by their writing is problematic. Real readers—the ones who read your writing out of inclination rather than obligation—won’t necessarily last long enough to discover the good news: the ‘bad news’ is often what readers notice first. Novice writers who are accustomed to the dynamics of undergraduate writing may imagine that readers are routinely willing and able to distinguish valuable content from difficult writing. It’s true that some readers—particularly the ones who are paid to read your writing—will work through the hard parts to get to the interesting ideas. But we get fewer and fewer of those readers as we move through our careers, and, increasingly, we must submit our writing (to grant competitions or for publication or in support of job applications) to people who are not obliged to read our writing and who may in fact be looking for weaknesses as a way to differentiate among many qualified applicants. All of which is to say, first impressions matter.

First impressions can be influenced by simple things such as standard spelling, grammar, font, formatting, etc. But first impressions can also be influenced by a confusing structure. In such cases, I often write things like ‘transition?’ or ‘placement?’ in the margins. Those queries are then expanded in person: ‘Do you think this is what your reader is expecting you to discuss here?’. Since the message usually sounds a bit dire (‘as it stands, this piece of writing is pretty hard to understand’), I like to follow it up with the good news. The good news is that structural problems are often curable, especially if diagnosed in time. I mention time because structural decisions do become harder to reverse the longer they are allowed to stand. By curable I mean that fixing structural problems won’t necessarily require the hard work of rewriting every sentence. Some sentence-level work will inevitably be necessary at some point, but improving placement and transitions, even without that sentence-level work, can make a huge difference to your writing.

So what does this mean to you at home, where there is nobody to offer you these diagnoses? It means that reverse outlines should always be an early part of your revision process; I find them an invaluable way to transition from the drafting to the revision stage, but others may find this strategy to be helpful at various points in the writing process. It also means maintaining a strong sense of efficacy when confronted by real structural problems early in a draft. When editing yourself, use good editing strategies so that your ‘bad news’ isn’t just an inchoate sense that a piece of writing isn’t any good. By forcing yourself to engage in large-scale structural edits (rather than just playing around with individual sentences), you will see that much of your writing can be saved. Figuring out how to use what you’ve got to achieve your goals and meet your reader’s expectations means that you will be making real progress while still evaluating your existing draft with a necessarily stern eye.

Lists: Backwards and Forwards

The last post was about writing effective lists. In that post, I talked about two important aspects of lists. At the simplest level, we should be able to use parallelism to make sure our lists are easy to read. At a more sophisticated level, we should be able to look at our own lists analytically to see if we can deepen our understanding of the ideas we are trying to convey. Apparently, I have a lot to say about lists since I now realize that I have two more points I wish to make. Today I would like to discuss the first of those points: how to improve ‘backwards’ lists. These are lists that list first and explain themselves last. Here is an example:

Effective patient care, respect for patient and family knowledge about the condition, and the need for community support were all issues identified by the focus group.

As a reader, you aren’t aware that you are reading a list of issues until you get close to the end. At that point, you might have to double back to fully grasp the sentence. Or you might even have had trouble the first time through since the structure of the sentence isn’t self-evident. Here is a revision:

The focus group identified three issues: effective patient care, respect for patient and family knowledge about the condition, and the need for community support.

This simple revision—and certainly more could be done to improve this sentence—has two obvious benefits. One, it starts with a clear subject and a strong verb (‘The focus group identified’), and, two, it notifies the reader that a list is coming. It is valuable to have a strategy for dealing with backwards lists because they are a natural reflection of how we think; we often figure out what the ‘issues’ themselves are before we know to characterize them as issues. It seems plausible to me that we will write ‘x, y, and z all matter in some way’ before we can write ‘the significant issues are x, y, and z’.  We just need to remember to switch these backwards lists around; once they have done their initial work in allowing us to understand the list we are trying to construct, we can rework them in a way that suits the needs of the reader.

This strategy is also helpful in dealing with transitions between sentences. If you find yourself using a lot of additive transition words (for instance, ‘also’, ‘in addition’, ‘moreover’), it may be helpful to go back and see how the various points relate to one another. When we analyze the internal relationships in our writing, we will find many different sorts of relationships, most of which will benefit from being made more explicit. One of those relationships could be that of a list. Since I don’t have room here for an elaborate example, let’s look at a version of the sentence we used last week:

Today’s educational leaders must provide instructional leadership. In addition, they must demonstrate moral leadership and support their staff. Long hours on the part of educators are necessary to improve student achievement. Also, they must exercise fiscal prudence.

A quick analysis of this passage would show the writer that these four sentences all concern things an educational leader must do. It would then be easy to reword to reflect that commonality:

Today’s educational leaders have multiple responsibilities: providing instructional leadership, demonstrating moral leadership, exercising fiscal prudence, supporting their staff, and working long hours to improve student achievement.

While this example was simple (and slightly exaggerated for effect), it does show how implicit lists can be identified in our writing after the fact. Once we have so identified them, we can turn them into explicit lists. And an explicit list is, of course, a list that the reader experiences ‘forwards’: first the announcement of the list and then the list items themselves.

The final point I want to make about lists—how we can use them to guide the reader through our text—is too long to tackle in this post. So come back next time when I’ll talk about how the internal organization of a list communicates structural information to the reader.

Scaffolding Phrases

This blog began with three key writing principles, all of which boiled down to the idea that we write initially for ourselves and ultimately for our reader. We write to clarify our thoughts, and then we revise extensively to craft a version that will meet the needs of our reader. In the early stages, when we are writing for ourselves and not yet fully for a reader, we may have some habits that serve us well but that might act as impediments for the reader. I am referring here to what I call scaffolding phrases, phrases that help us write but that may eventually be removed. We all have bad writing habits; my point here is that some of those habits will be ‘bad’ only in the sense of ‘bad for the reader’. These habits may actually be good for our writing, as long as we have the awareness to remove them later. As an example, I will use one of my own writing crutches: ‘in other words’. I use this phrase fairly indiscriminately to propel myself from one sentence to the next. Since the gravest writing troubles involve not getting from one sentence to the next, I am eager to hang on to anything that helps me do so. But my reader would be baffled by a series of sentences all of which were linked by ‘in other words’. When I find this phrase in my writing, I run through a series of options designed to help me understand the true relationship between the sentences:

1. Perhaps the second sentence is an example, in which case I can switch to a transitional expression such as ‘for instance’.

2. Perhaps the second sentence is expressing a consequence of the first sentence, in which case I can switch to a transitional expression such as ‘as a result’ or I can reword to say something like ‘Given this [idea from the first sentence], [second sentence]’.

3. Perhaps the second sentence is just a better way of expressing the idea and the first sentence is unnecessary. I find this option to be the case frequently; the second try is often better than the first.

4. Finally, perhaps ‘in other words’ does accurately describe the relationship and should be allowed to stand. This sort of rephrasing is particularly useful in those cases when the first way of saying it wasn’t fully your own. Following up a quote or a paraphrase with another way of saying it can be invaluable, especially when the ‘in other words’ leads to a rewording that explicitly picks up on your key themes and terminology, allowing the reader to see essential connections in your text.

Other common scaffolding phrases include ‘that is’, ‘what this means is’ and  ‘it is important to note that’. Some writers also use simple questions to advance their text. Consider this use of a question:

X is very important for Y. What do we mean by Y? Y means ….

In this case, the question can simply be removed, without any need to put something in its stead. I wouldn’t, however, want to prohibit the use of such questions if they are helpful. Often my students will point to various things that I have excised from sentences and say ‘so we should never do that?’ (everyone is hungry for absolutes in an advanced writing class). I always say–after a tedious little lecture about the impossibility of absolutes in writing–that even those elements that are ultimately unhelpful for your reader may still be helpful for you as a writer.

In sum, identify your writing tics and decide if they do any work for you during the composing process. Plan to remove them, if necessary, but don’t plan to do without them. Anything that helps you get your ideas down on paper should be thought of as a good strategy; the only cautionary note is that you need to be sure those ‘scaffolds’ aren’t lingering in your final work, obscuring your true intentions. If you think of any of these scaffolding phrases that are helpful in your own writing process, feel free to leave them in the comments below.

Next I am going to talk about dashes: their uses in academic writing and the difference between a single dash and a pair of dashes.

Semicolons

As promised, today’s topic is the semicolon. I am always surprised by the numbers of writers who express genuine apprehension about semicolons. Somebody out there is giving people the idea that the semicolon is a risky bit of punctuation. There is, of course, the possibility for some initial confusion about the semicolon (is it more like a period? or a comma? or a colon?). But academic writers–people who study topics that are genuinely challenging (every semester I get at least one actual rocket scientist in a class)–can definitely handle the slight complexity of semicolon use.

The semicolon has two main uses. One, we can use a semicolon in the place of a comma in a list; in such cases, the semicolon does more than a comma, allowing us to include complex elements without worrying about unnecessary ambiguity. Two, we can use a semicolon in the place of a period between two complete sentences; in such cases, the semicolon does less than a period, allowing us to express a close topical connection between two independent sentences.

1. Semicolons in lists:

When we need to separate list items that are themselves complex or that have internal punctuation, semicolons work far better than commas.

Example:

The research on workplace equity confronts three main issues: the difficulty of finding an acceptable definition of workplace equity; the tension between workers, given that inequity will be perceived differently by different groups; and the tendency of managers to value business performance over working conditions.

Compare that to a version with commas between the list items:

The research on workplace equity confronts the difficulty of finding an acceptable definition of workplace equity, the tension between workers, given that inequity will be perceived differently by different groups, and the tendency of managers to value business performance over working conditions.

In the second example, the comma before given can create confusion. If we use semicolons, however, we avoid that ambiguity. (I will devote a future post to the topic of lists; we all use lists extensively in our academic writing, and there are things we can do to make sure we are using them effectively.)

2. Semicolons between sentences

When we need to divide two independent sentences while still maintaining a close thematic connection, semicolons work well.

Example:

Drying shrinkage can be eradicated by the application of the proper curing method; this reliance on curing means that we will need accurate measurements of the free water left in the concrete and of the relative humidity of the environment.

Compare that to a version in which both ideas are expressed in a single sentence:

Drying shrinkage can be eradicated by the application of the proper curing method, which means that we will need accurate measurements of the free water left in the concrete and the relative humidity of the environment.

The second example is less effective because of the potential ambiguity of the referent for which. You could, of course, solve this problem with a period instead of a semicolon. But those two sentences (having once been a single sentence) would still be closely connected. Showing that close connection with a semicolon can be a useful approach, especially for the academic writer who is looking to make complex connections among ideas without writing dense or ambiguous sentences.

The semicolon, as we just saw, can divide grammatically while uniting thematically. As readers, we are attuned to the end of sentences: when we reach the end of a sentence, we happily stop thinking about the grammatical relationship between the parts of the sentence. So ending sentences can be good. But short sentences–if they are too common or come in batches–can be bad.  A semicolon allows us to end a sentence while explicitly continuing our treatment of an idea. This benefit of semicolons is why we so often see them used with conjunctive adverbs and transitional expressions (e.g., however, instead, nevertheless, specifically, equally important, for example, in fact, on the contrary):

Ninety percent of Canadians recognize the components of a healthy diet; however, they fail to apply this knowledge when selecting foods.

These sentences could be separated by a period, but most of us will want to keep them closer than that. This is not to say that transitional words or phrases demand semicolons but rather that semicolons will often accurately reflect the relationship we are constructing when we use such expressions.

If you have questions about semicolons, please feel free to ask them in the comment section. And if you have no such questions, you should be happily using semicolons to great advantage in your writing. The next post will be an editing tip: identifying your own scaffolding phrases.

Transitions

Learning how to make effective transitions is essential to strong academic writing. A lack of comfort with making transitions is one of the causes of the short paragraphs that so often afflict novice academic writing. When we do not know how to make smooth transitions, we are more likely to add in unnecessary paragraph breaks, imagining that starting a new paragraph will solve the problem. But creating short, choppy paragraphs only exacerbates the problem. Instead, we must focus on creating effective transitions between sentences, which we generally do in one of two ways: we use transition words or we use textual linkages. Both strategies have a role to play, but novice writers, unfortunately, often see transition words as their only way of moving from sentence to sentence. This over-reliance on transition words  is actually detrimental to our writing and blinds us to the possibility of using textual linkages to create more meaningful connections between sentences. Transition words are easy and thus allow us to avoid the hard work of grasping the actual connections in our texts. Indeed, texts full of transition words may actually feel choppy because unnecessary transition words can obscure the true nature of the relationship among sentences.

Here are a few key principles to help create clear transitions in your writing:

1. Avoid unclear reference. The single most important way of linking your sentences is through clear reference. Contrast these two simple examples: ‘A is connected to B. This is…’ and ‘A is connected to B. This connection is…’. Without the summary word (‘connection’), we cannot tell whether the ‘this’ in the first example refers to A, to B, or to the connection between them. We call this pattern ‘this + summary word’. There will be times, of course, when the reference is obvious, but generally the reader needs to have reference made explicit. So a simple principle: never leave a ‘this’ orphaned and alone.

2. Avoid unnecessary transition words. The transition words most likely to fall into this category are the additive ones: ‘in addition’, ‘also’, ‘moreover’, ‘furthermore’. (Both ‘moreover’ and ‘furthermore’ can be correctly used as intensifiers—where one sentence deepens the claim of the previous one—but they are so often used to indicate simple addition that I am including them here.) My first approach to a word like ‘also’ is to remove it; if you are using it to say ‘here comes another related point’, it is probably unnecessary. If you are instead trying to make a more complicated connection, removing ‘also’ and adding a more substantive indication of that link will be far more helpful to the reader.

3. Avoid the mere appearance of causality. When we overuse causal words, we often undermine the actual connection we could be making. When we say ‘A exists. Therefore, I am going to study A.’, we are missing a chance to give an actual rationale for our research. Look closely at your use of causal words (‘therefore’, ‘thus’, ‘hence’) and make sure that they accurately reflect the relationship you are trying to convey.

4. Use transition words to indicate a change of direction in your text. Whenever we are disagreeing with ourselves, it is essential that we indicate this to the reader. Consider these simple examples: ‘There is plentiful evidence for A. I think not-A.’ and ‘There is plentiful evidence for A. However, I think not-A.’ The first example sounds like you might be unintentionally contradicting yourself; emphasizing your intentions with a ‘but’ or ‘however’ lets the reader know what you are up to.

I will also make two quick points about other types of transitions.

Paragraph transitions generally need to be more robust than those between sentences. This need for more fulsome transitions can mean that ‘this + summary word’ becomes  ‘this + summary phrase’, where the phrase is a fuller indication of what was discussed in the previous paragraph. It also means that transition words are often out of place in paragraph transitions precisely because they create such a tight relationship. There are, of course, exceptions to this, but as a general rule words or phrases like ‘however’, ‘in other words’, or ‘furthermore’ may puzzle the reader when they appear at the start of the paragraph; at the very least, they may send the reader back to the previous paragraph and that is not the direction in which you want to be pointing your reader.

Transitions between sections are a different issue again. Transitions between sections can be made in several ways: at the end of one section, at the beginning of another, or at an earlier point at which an overall structure is created. (For instance, in a literature review, a writer may say that she is going to consider the literature on a certain topic from three different perspectives. The reader will then be fine with three independent sections without any explicit transitions between them.) One simple piece of advice for section transitions: do not rely on the section headings to accomplish the transition for you. As a rule of thumb, I suggest reading through section (and sub-section) headings as though they were not there. Not that they should actually be removed, but rather that the author should make sure that transitions are accomplished in the text, not through headings.

This post describes the third of five key strategies for strong academic writing; I have chosen these five simply because they are the ones that I most frequently turn to in my work with students. In the four other posts, I discuss reverse outlines; paragraphs; verbs; and subjects.

For more on transitions, you can consult these other posts:

  • In Full Stop, I talk about the way we create flow across sentences.
  • Breaking Points looks at how we can signal the relationship we are trying to create between paragraphs.