© Damen, 2002

25. Rough Transitions.

Sometimes I read papers that move so rapidly and violently between topics I feel as if the writer is jerking my head from one side to the other. Believe me, if it's possible to get whiplash from reading, I've had it! And frankly, if some writers whose work I've read drive on the road the way they careen through their papers, their cars must be seriously scraped up and their passengers in shock, if still alive. Instead, here are some hints on how to write an essay that corners smoothly and safely changes lanes.

The guiding force behind every well-constructed paper is the theme, the central question or issue to which the writer is responding. Everything in the paper should be directed at and connected to that theme (see below, #26 "Narrative"). Bear in mind, too, that even when the link between the theme and the facts you're citing seems clear to you-the-writer, it may not be to me-the-reader. The theme must be reinforced often, more frequently than you might think, at the very least once every paragraph.

When it isn't, rough transitions will undoubtedly occur, especially between paragraphs. What's happened in this case is the writer has become so engrossed in recounting the facts he's forgotten to point out their relevance to the issue at hand. The paper lurches abruptly from one set of facts to another without tying them to the theme. Writers, instead, should reinforce in the reader's mind what underlies the citation of these facts, what holds them all together, and that is, of course, the theme. The lesson is, use the theme to tie paragraphs together and, thus, link the facts to one another.

Let me show you what I mean. Suppose that you're writing about the importance of women in Western Europe. And, in the course of that paper, you've chosen to discuss Roman women and Medieval queens. So you write:

. . . Finally, Livia, the wife of Augustus, dominated Roman politics toward the end of her husband's life. She was responsible for the succession of her son Tiberius, who was not Augustus' child, and through Tiberius all but ruled the Roman state during the early part of his reign.

Eleanor of Aquitaine controlled much of southern France which she had inherited from her father. In marrying Henry II, she brought with her a power and authority which even her husband, the king of England, could not defy—indeed, dared not defy, at least not publicly!—. . .

The problem here is the rough transition between Livia and Eleanor as data cited in support of the prominence of women in Western civilization. What's been forgotten is the theme, the reason these women are being discussed at all, namely, the argument that women throughout history have asserted their authority through unconventional means to gain and maintain power.

Instead, use the theme to bridge transitions between different facts, or bodies of fact:

. . . Finally, Livia, the wife of Augustus, dominated Roman politics toward the end of her husband's life. She was responsible for the succession of her son Tiberius, who was not Augustus' child, and through Tiberius all but ruled the Roman state during the early part of his reign. Thus, certain Roman women like Livia possessed great power and were not afraid to use their authority in maintaining control of their world.

Medieval women prove little different, some of whom were quite powerful, too. Eleanor of Aquitaine, for instance, controlled much of southern France which she had inherited from her father. In marrying Henry II, she brought with her a power and authority which even her husband, the king of England, could not defy—indeed, dared not defy, at least not publicly!—. . .

What I added to the paragraph above (in italics) is probably only what the writer was thinking when he wrote it. The point is, he forgot to say it, and it needs to be said.

There's a larger lesson here at hand, too. The theme is the most important element in any paper and, as such, should command the greatest share of attention. It needs to be repeated often—granted, in different wording, so don't just write the very same thing ten times (see below, #27 [Repeated Phrases and Facts])!—because you need to remind the reader why the facts you're citing pertain to your paper. And, especially at transitions, restate the theme in order to bridge the gap between paragraphs as you shift focus from one group of facts to another. In other words, turn corners gently, brake smoothly and, when you change lanes, look ahead and behind. No one wants to ride with a reckless writer.

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