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Transitions
Andrew Bates
Department of English

Transitions, though not often touted as a “deal-breaker” in writing, play a vital role in effectively conveying an author’s thesis throughout a paper.  They aid in organization and avoid cohesion woes, keeping the reader on track and preserving the integrity of the structure.  While teaching ENGL 1100 and ENGL 1200, I developed this exercise to illustrate the significance of transitions as well as to provide an interactive and creative way to approach the issue.

I begin the exercise with an elaborate stick figure rendering representing a reader and the potentially treacherous trek from idea A to idea B.  The stick figure is initially standing atop “Idea A”, smiling with intent to cross a gap and arrive at “Idea B.”  Without proper transitions, the smiling stick figure falls into a deep chasm between ideas and emerges with a frown. I make a show of the effort required by the stick figure to climb back from the abyss to gain footing on “Idea B”.  Once on “Idea B”, the figure is noticeably angered and frustrated. This parallels the confusion readers may experience when trying to connect the ideas if the author does not provide a bridge (drawn on the board after the fall) to connect the ideas.

With the bridge in place (which is explained as ranging from a few words in the last/first sentence in the paragraph to a few lines leading toward the subsequent/previous idea), the stick figure successfully makes it from idea A to idea B without falling into the chasm and arrives at idea B with the smile in place. This models an effective transition among ideas and how the reader can be positively or negatively affected by attention to transition.

The next phase of the exercise is talk about physical transitions such as the stairs in the room, and how we like our stairs to be evenly spaced so we don’t fall. I provide the example of helping a friend move from a second story apartment and being tasked with carrying their 42” plasma HD TV (something of great personal and financial value).  The stairs are drawn with two evenly spaced at the top, then a significant drop (about two or three missing steps), and one or two evenly spaced steps at the bottom. The class is then asked what will happen when you get to that point in the stairs where there is a tremendous drop. Invariably the class responds that they will fall and drop the TV, breaking the TV and potentially losing a friend and their own life for dropping said TV. I then explain that the TV is a metaphor for their thesis – something of great value to them and their paper. The stairs represent transitions, or lack thereof, and without evenly spaced stairs, you drop the expensive TV. Ergo, without adequate transitions in their writing, their thesis or ideas too can be lost, which results in ineffective writing.

The exercise next moves to a stage where I ask for a sentence from the class. The first sentence that is thrown out there is written at the top of the board. With freshmen, the first sentence is something along the lines of “Today is Monday.” or “It is raining outside.” I ask for another, unrelated sentence from the class and write that at the bottom of the board. These again, are fairly simple concepts such as “I am hungry/sleepy” etc. Once these two sentences are on the board, I explain that these represent topic sentences in paragraphs that will be developed, not just self-contained ideas. The class must collectively develop the first idea and “warm it up” to the subsequent idea on the board with the maxim that it can’t be done in one sentence.

Using suggestions from the class, I write sentences on the board between the two ideas in collaborative effort to weave a web from one to the other. The class invariably discusses each contribution and refines it as a group with less and less prompting from me as the activity wears on.  I progress from two sentences provided by the class to one from them and one from me (generally a completely random idea involving super heroes and the like). This increases the difficulty and also provides some humor to keep their spirits up and keep them engaged. The final challenge is two completely disparate sentences I come up with – generally a quote from an author and another bit of super hero or pop culture babble.
The exercise is closed by stating that since they can now find common ground between two completely random ideas (which hopefully, their paper will not have), that they can find ways with a sentence or line or two to keep their paper rolling from idea to idea.  In this manner, I use exaggerated examples to (hopefully) effectively establish the significance and power of transitions.