Writing Transitions: Framing Before Finishing

In some ways, writing is like building a house. Your outline is only the blueprint. For a strong, functional house, you need a solid frame – and that frame consists of the transitions you make from one topic to the next in your document.

Here’s some advice I often tell my coaching clients about when and how to create transitions in your writing…

Usually, most people go about the task of writing this way:

  1. They get an idea.
  2. They decide how to approach that topic (scope and angle).
  3. They map out an outline, listing all the key points to make.
  4. They start writing – either from beginning to end, or tackling various sections out of sequence until they’re done.
  5. They struggle to find ways to hook all of those sections together (writing transitions).
  6. They realize with dismay the finished product is too long or rambling.
  7. They either publish it as is (because they’re too exhausted to go back and revise), or they plunge back in and spend a great deal of energy revising. (Or they saddle some unfortunate editor with that task.) This revision is difficult, because they’re forced to make hard choices about cutting content that they put a lot of thought and effort into creating.

The result often resembles an attempt to cobble together sections of three different modular homes into a single dwelling.

It doesn’t have to be so tough. By switching steps 4 and 5, you can greatly minimize or even elimate steps 6 and 7.

That’s right – Write the key transitions in your document FIRST, before you actually flesh out the sections in paragraph form. This simple trick forces you to consider the purpose, flow, and constraints of your document right from the start.

After you’ve created your outline, if you proceed by envisioning how your points fit together and support each other in progress toward the goal of your document, you’ll tend to stay on track. You won’t end up with a sprawling mass of disjointed content that puts unnecessary burdens on your readers, your editor, or yourself.

In short, transitions should never be an afterthought. They’re the frame of your document – not the finished trim. They give your document a sense of continuity and purpose. Most importantly, strong transitions play a key role in keeping your reader’s attention and interest engaged throughout your document.

WHERE ARE TRANSITIONS NEEDED?

Every time you introduce a new main section or topic, you need a transition.

In that sense, even your document’s introduction is a transition of sorts – it transitions your readers from their pre-existing state of knowledge regarding your topic (or assumptions about your document) into the actual experience of your writing. Similarly, your conclusion transitions readers into full realization of your document’s core message, and then back into their own world where they can put your information to use. (More about writing conclusions.)

Within the body of your document, here are the key transitions you should consider up front:

  • New sections: If you’re writing a report or white paper, these would be all the top-level sections that would have titles. If you’re writing a book, manual, or other sizeable document, these would be chapter transitions. If you’re writing a long article, these would be subheads.

  • New subsections: Generally, this applies only to reports, white papers, manuals, books, and other long documents. Ideally, articles should not have subsections.

Any time you face one of these topical shifts, you need a strong and smooth transition.

In general, it’s helpful to keep the structure of your document as simple as possible. Avoid descending into multiple levels of subsections unless you’re writing a reference book (and even then, strive for as much simplicity as possible).

It’s usually not necessary to write transitions between points made within a section or subsection (in the main text of your document). However, you should take care to order your points in a way that supports the overall flow of your document. Never toss points together in a random way – that makes your document feel scattered, which can cause readers to disengage.

Remember: Readers want to be engaged. They enjoy being interested. Consequently, they want your document to have a sense of purpose and flow.

THE PURPOSE OF TRANSITIONS

Transitions exist to keep your document moving along in a focused way, directly supporting your ultimate goal or message. They also serve as “hooks” that periodically pull your reader closer as you navigate topical turns.

Therefore, a strong transition will connect directly both to the main point (the “so what?”) of your entire document, as well as to the perspective of your target audience. By re-establishing these particular connections periodically, you remind your reader of the broader context (which makes shifts feel less jarring), and you foreshadow or reinforce your main message (which aids comprehension).

Most importantly, connecting directly with your main message or goal and with your audience’s perspective at several points helps you as a writer. This technique forces you to adopt the mindset of serving your audience and your goals – rather than pontificating, rambling, or regurgitating.

It’s especially useful to adopt this perspective early in a writing project, since it will color everything you write. It’s much more difficult (and even painful) to try to insert such crucial focus and connection during the editorial process

HOW TO WRITE A STRONG, SMOOTH TRANSITION

Transitions provide an experience of flow and connection. Like any good ride, this experience should not be bumpy. Obviously, a transition should smooth the process of reading by clarifying the relationship between then end of one section and the beginning of the next.

However, there’s a secret trick that aids transitions. A strong transition typically makes heavy use of foreshadowing and echoing.

Here’s how that works:

  1. End with a lead-in. Whenever you end a section or subsection, the final sentence should make a point foreshadowing how the topic you just discussed relates to the topic you are about to discuss.

    For instance, a white paper supporting policy incentives for fuel cell vehicles that is intended for a business (but not expert) audience might conclude a chapter on funding technology with this sentence: “The technical challenges of fuel cell vehicles pale in comparison to the market obstacles that such a major switch in vehicle fuels would face.”

  2. Hint at next main point with next title. When writing the title of your next section or subsection, don’t just flatly list the topic. Imply the main point you’re about to make in a way that supports your documents goal (core message).

    For instance, rather than titling a section in that fuel cell vehicle report “Market Dynamics,” you might call it “Countering Market Inertia.” This way, you’re preparing the reader for the shift in context – which is often harder to grasp than a simple shift in topic.

  3. Lead with an echo. To preserve continuity, begin the main text of each new section or subsection with a sentence that echoes a theme of the previous section – but in the new context.

    For instance, that white paper section “Countering Market Inertia” might lead with this sentence: “Ironically, some of the industries leading the development of fuel cell vehicle technology also are deeply invested in the gasoline-vehicle market – leading to friction that slows the pace of adoption.”

Again, it’s extremely helpful to write this sort of brief transition text BEFORE you actually start to write the “meat” of your document. This will force you to examine how your main points relate to and support each other, how they support your document’s goal, and how you will keep them relevant to your target audience.

If you have a lot of trouble making a particular transition fit well, that’s a red flag that you probably should reorganize, reframe, or delete some of your material. Trust me, it’s much better to realize that before you write several sections than after!

WEB TRANSITIONS: SAME STRATEGY, MORE COMPLICATED

This same transition strategy works well for Web copy that spans several linked pages. However, on the Web you face an additional burden for supplying extra context on every page. This is because your readers may not (in fact, probably will not) read your document sequentially. Therefore, Web pages need to “stand alone” in terms of content more than sections of printed documents.

I recommend sketching out a site map or flow chart of the pages you’re creating, in order to understand the key relationships among them. Are they meant to be read in a particular sequence, like turning pages in a book? Do several pages follow from one root page, like a menu tree?

It’s impossible to write a blanket transition that would be appropriate to readers arriving from any page in your site (or elsewhere). And if you offer no transition, your document will become more fragmented and difficult for readers to follow. Therefore, write your Web transitions as if the online reader is following your preferred path through the work. It usually helps to refer (and link) back to the “thematically previous” page at some point in the text, if that will help the reader place the current page firmly in context. Just avoid using the word “previous,” since often that gets confusing in Web documents.

SUCCESS = A GREAT SUMMARY

After you’ve written your key transistions, how can you tell whether you did a good job? Read through your document, preferably aloud (because the ear catches what the eye misses). Your titles and transitions alone should provide a strong sense of the general theme, flow, and goal of your document. You should find yourself reading with a purposeful tone, not halting or questioning. it should be an easy, clear read.

When the frame of your document is that good, you’re ready to finish writing – and you’ll be amazed how much easier that process will be.

5 thoughts on Writing Transitions: Framing Before Finishing

Comments are closed.

  1. Regarding Johnica Aherrera’s question below, “as for speechwriting and presentation, how would ‘transition’ help improve your speech?”

    …Well, I’m not a speechwriter. However, from my experience in giving talks and seminars, I’d say tha transitions are probably even more important in speeches than in written materials. Listeners can’t “check back” to review what was said when listening to a speech the way they can glance back at written materials. Therefore, it’s important for the speaker to provide periodic clues about the flow and direction of the speech — where it’s been, where it is now, and where it’s going.

    As to how to write transitions for speeches, I don’t feel qualified to comment on that. However, if any speechwriters would like to comment on that topic here I’d appreciate it.

    – Amy Gahran
    Editor, CONTENTIOUS

  2. hello amy. this is a great article. very timely since i am taking a writing for PR and a speechwriting & presentation course during the summer. as for speechwriting and presentation, how would “transition” help improve your speech? any thoughts on this matter? thanks in advance?