Transitions wear many hats. In a word or short phrase, they let the reader know critical information about:
They can also alert the reader to the addition of information, and, insert a point of clarification. They can be workhorses of clarity, indicators that the reader is about to turn a corner or that there is something up ahead in the reader’s road.
As such, they are great tools for a writer, but they tend to get short shrift in grammar texts where they are referred to as connectors of ideas or details. Like real workhorses, it’s good to give them an occasional rest. They are easily subjected to overuse and potentially can make your writing come across a little hackneyed, as in a “meanwhile back at the ranch” sort of thing.
Transitions are more frequently used when the style of writing is somewhat more minutiae driven and includes details the reader could easily do without. Some grammarians attribute the change, to this “less-is-more” attitude, to the movies. There, transitions are made obvious by visual changes in location and/or time. In an instant you can be transported to another place or time that for some magical reason is less jarring than when you do it in a single written sentence. Such the magic of movies: “It’s my turn to make breakfast,” said Emile. / In the next scene Susan comes into the kitchen in the morning—hair tousled and yawning and stretching: “The smell of bacon woke me up.” / Emile turns, flashing his spatula like a sword. “Scrambled okay?” No transitional words needed.
Renni Browne and Dave King in their book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers provide this example of how the technique has been adopted by writers:
The older way:
“The phone rang, Geraldine walked across the room and picked it up. ‘Hello,’ she said.”
The new way:
“The phone rang. / ‘Hello,’ Geraldine said.”
The reader knows that if Geraldine is saying hello she would have had to walk over to the phone and pick up the receiver. So why describe it. You’re always better served by avoiding unnecessary words. This is a very important observation for the younger writers because they tend to put in too much detail—too many words—and thus overuse transitions. They serve as a sort of crutch through the flow of action.
The lack of need for the descriptive details is obvious in the above example, but there’s also little chance for confusion there. What transitions do is keep the focus of the writing on a narrow path by giving the reader a sort of heads up—we’re out here on the range but meanwhile back at the ranch . . . Their use should be limited to situations where their use is necessary to avoid confusion.
Thus (note the transition), in fiction writing, the avoidance of classic transitional words and phrases can be worked into the structure of the narrative and dialogue as shown by Geraldine, above.
Non-fiction, however, presents a slightly different circumstance. The reader might need a bit more stage direction. Where fictional scenes typically have physicality to them—the kitchen above—in non-fiction, the “scene” is likely to be less a physical construct and more an idea or subjective concept. To maintain the reader’s location relative to an idea might require a little more direction and thus the use of a verbal transition:
Typical transition in non-fiction: “Before you mix in the nuts, stir in the blueberries.”
Typical transition in fiction: “Before you touch that light switch, be sure you sniff for the smell of gas.”
Both rely on a simple transition—before—for clarity and continuity. A little rewriting might render the transition unnecessary.
Non-fiction: “Drop in the nuts. Stir. Add the blueberries . . .”
Tom placed his hand on the light switch. / “Smell the gas, Tom?” said Franklin. “Might consider the consequences of an electrical spark.”
So how best to deal with transitions in your writing? They are going to pop up simply because they are something your brain automatically reaches for and plugs in as part of its default course of least resistance. When you come across one in your editing or rewriting, think about how you might avoid it by writing a better sentence or two. Don’t let them serve as an all-to-easy alternative to something that just might sound more literary.
Peter freed the canoe from its tether and slipped it into the water. He grabbed a paddle and gingerly stepped into the boat, avoiding rocking it. Meanwhile, Amy was in the kitchen drying the breakfast dishes.
Avoiding the transitional word:
Amy stood drying a plate and staring out the kitchen window and watched Peter untether the canoe and slide it into the water . . .
Rather than segregate the two interactions actions—Peter and the canoe and Amy and the dishes—I’ve combined them and ended up using fewer words to create a crisper image. Without the transition, the juxtaposition of the two images is more effectively blended together.
Transitions, strangely enough, are meant to keep a piece of writing flowing, but at the same time they insert a little bump in the road. Like adverbs and adjectives, try to find avoid them unless they are absolutely necessary, and make avoiding them a sort of game of diction. You want any element of detail or description to fit seamlessly into the flow of your prose. A transition is an artificial bridge that does that. “Hey wait! Heads up!” they can shout. “I need to shove this in right here. Proceed accordingly.”
This might seem to be such a tiny little nit that it’s not worth the effort to avoid them, but remember, it took Michelangelo just a few extra brush strokes to turn just another portrait of a woman into the “Mona Lisa.” It’s too easy to take the paint by number approach when what you need to do is pay more attention to the detail of your pen stroke.
To provide other examples of how to avoid transitional words would start a project with infinite alternatives, so my simple advice: When you’re about to insert a transition, look for an alternative way to avoid it. The following table of transitions can serve as a list of red flags or help you pick a better transition . . .