Master the five types of transitions.
Transitions are a critical aspect of good prose.
Transitions are a critical aspect of good prose. They create coherence and assure readers that they are still on the same path. Without transitions, a piece of writing may feel like it is bouncing around among unrelated topics.
Think about adjacent sentences and paragraphs as links in a chain, with each link pointing backward to previous material and forward to new or soon-to-be-conveyed information. The mechanisms by which a writer creates these backward and forward pointers are called transitions.
Many writers erroneously equate transitions with transition words such as “however” and “therefore.” But there are other ways to create coherence in writing. Any of the following devices counts as a transition:
1. Transition words or phrases (“Further,” “Additionally,” “But,” etc.)
2. Pointing words referencing previous material (“Those arguments . . . ,” etc.)
3. Signposts indicating a reader’s position in the argument (“First,” “Second,” etc.)
4. Echo links: words or phrases in which a previously mentioned idea reverberates
5. Links to the broader argument or theme: language that shows continuity by reorienting the reader to the larger theme or argument
Let’s consider each of these in turn.
Transition words and phrases
Though it is possible to overuse explicit transition words or phrases, they are an inevitable ingredient of coherent writing. Here are some common transition words and phrases:
as a result
In general, shorter transition words or phrases are preferable to their longer counterparts. Accordingly, “but” is usually better than “however,” and “so” is usually better than “therefore.” But you will want to vary your word choice for stylistic reasons such as avoiding repetition and managing rhythm and emphasis.
Pointing words typically use a demonstrative adjective (this, that, those, etc.) to refer to a concept already introduced. Here’s an example:
The “buy-out fee” is indistinguishable, except in outrageousness of amount, from the early termination fees held to be penalties in Cellphone Termination Fee Cases. In that case, the Court of Appeal held that early termination fees of $150 and $200 were unlawful penalties under Civ. Code § 1671(d).
A roadmap tells the reader where they are going, and a signpost tells the reader where they are at present.
Sentences setting up list frameworks are a type of roadmap. For example, a brief might say: “Defendant’s motion should be denied for three reasons.” The three reasons are then typically set out with signposts such as “First,” “Second,” and so on.
Echo links are words or phrases that “echo” a word or concept that appeared earlier in the text. The simplest way to create an echo link is to repeat a term or phrase from the previous sentence:
Apartment managers cannot try to enforce a lease and then hide behind the landlord, an undisclosed principal, when the tenant challenges the lease. Tenants are not required to go sleuthing to trace the identity of remote landlords through a maze of shell companies such as those used by Homeview’s owners.
Alternatively, you can conceptually link back to earlier information, such as by using a pronoun:
Because his consent to the lease was procured by fraud, Jones is entitled to rescind the contract and seek complete relief, including damages, against those responsible. His allegations also support a right to rescind based on mistake of fact, unconscionability, and economic duress.
Links to the broader argument or theme
The transition devices discussed above point backward to a previous sentence or paragraph. Another form of transition promotes coherence by pointing “upward” to the document’s broader argument or theme. Here is an example:
Equity and CalHomes use “rent concession” schemes to lure prospective residents, lock them into unaffordable leases, and threaten them with penalties disguised as “concession cancellation fees” if they breach. This case illustrates how such deceptive schemes can ensnare even cautious tenants.
In short, there are many ways to ensure that your document is coherent and flows smoothly from one sentence and paragraph to the next.
As you revise, if you find a section that feels disjointed, consider whether you can use one of the five transition devices just discussed to link your sentences and paragraphs together. In a recent post, I discussed four types of coherence that you want to aim for: vertical, horizontal, conceptual, and verbal.
Ryan McCarl is a founding partner of Rushing McCarl LLP, author of Elegant Legal Writing (U. Cal. Press 2024), and adjunct professor at Loyola Law School. For more writing tips, subscribe to the Elegant Legal Writing newsletter and follow Ryan on LinkedIn. McCarl’s book is now available on Amazon.
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