Negotiating Transitions for Journal Articles
Among the many aspects that characterise excellent scholarly writing are effective transitions. These transitions might be between the clauses and sentences of a document or between its paragraphs and sections, but the substance of every transition is intellectual. This is to say that transitions are logical constructs – thought bridges, as it were, between facts and ideas – and their effect for readers can vary markedly.
Among the most basic of transitions are those established through agreement or an analogy. For example, an author might be describing the nesting behaviour of a certain kind of bird and then need to turn the discussion and the reader’s attention to another species. To do so he or she might write something like ‘The same is the case with the magpie’ or ‘Similar behaviour can be observed in the magpie.’ Either can be seen as a smooth transition because it uses behaviour already implanted in the reader’s mind to introduce a new element – a species of bird that behaves in the same or a similar way. This is a much more effective writing strategy than simply beginning to discuss the magpie without any introductory transition and only making the connection via nesting behaviour further down in the discussion of magpies.
Contrast or surprise is another excellent basis for an effective transition. Using the example of a document on the nesting habits of birds once again, let us say that the author wants to direct the discussion and the reader’s attention to a species that exhibits very different nesting habits. In this case sentences such as ‘Just the opposite is the case with robins’ and ‘Entirely different behaviour has been observed in nesting robins’ might be used. One could think of such a transition as somewhat abrupt, but this shift is deliberate and remains smooth because the transition is based upon information already presented for the reader. More jarring and unsuccessful would be starting to discuss the nesting behaviour of robins and only clarifying how very different that behaviour is after many sentences of detail. Focussing on the difference guides the reader as he or she negotiates the material, whereas not having such a focal point while changing direction can leave even an interested reader confused and frustrated.
When presenting information in a list format or in the kind of guide books that birdwatchers use to identify individuals, authors may not need to worry about careful transitions of the kind I am describing. However, whenever a scholarly author is constructing a logical academic or scientific argument, transitions should be carefully designed to lead the reader gently along a path of discovery. Remember that you are relating the story of your research, which is probably complex, and your analysis of that research, which may be even more complicated, and in order to persuade readers of the validity of your procedures and ideas you will need to share your thinking as much as possible. Successfully negotiating effective transitions as a writer will enable you to share the movement of your thoughts as well as the processes of your research in ways that will prove engaging and convincing for your readers.