Connecting Ideas Through Transitions


According to poet and science writer Diane Ackerman, “one of the brain’s deepest needs [is] to fill the world with pathways and our lives with a design.” We naturally look for how things are related. In writing, this means that readers tend to assume that two side-by-side sentences or adjacent paragraphs relate to each other. If the pathways and design of your writing aren’t clear to readers, readers will either get confused or frustrated or try to mistakenly intuit their own connections. Both responses can be disastrous.

Good writing provides clear passages through all of your ideas so that readers don’t get lost or start to blaze their own conceptual trail. These connections between ideas occur at the sentence, paragraph, section, and (for longer works) even chapter level. As a writer, it is your responsibility to make sure that your readers follow this progression, that they understand how you arrive at your various ideas and how those ideas relate to each other. In this page, we explore how to make your connections between ideas understandable by using common relationship categories to compose sentences that are cohesive, paragraphs that are coherent, and transitions that clearly order and introduce ideas.

Common Kinds of Relationships Writers Establish between Ideas

Writers are always working to establish clear relationships between and within all of their ideas. Consider how Derek Thompson moves naturally between one concept to another in this short passage from his The Atlantic feature about the future of jobs entitled “A World Without Work”:

[1] One common objection to the idea that technology will permanently displace huge numbers of workers is that new gadgets, like self-checkout kiosks at drugstores, have failed to fully displace their human counterparts, like cashiers. [2] But employers typically take years to embrace new machines at the expense of workers. [3] The robotics revolution began in factories in the 1960s and ’70s, but manufacturing employment kept rising until 1980, and then collapsed during the subsequent recessions.

In the first sentence, Thompson begins with an idea that is familiar to readers at three different levels. The argument that machines haven’t replaced all retail employees and therefore won’t do so in the future is common to anyone who has thought much about workplace technology. This idea is also specifically familiar to the individuals who have been reading Thompson’s article. Finally, Thompson makes this idea even more familiar by connecting it to an example that his readers are familiar with: the effects of self-checkout kiosks. In his second sentence, Thompson uses the transition word “but” to establish a contrastive relationship; what he is about to say in some way opposes what he just said. He concludes this passage with a sentence providing chronologically organized evidence for the idea he raised through that contrast. In this example, he very quickly leads us from the 1960s to the late 20th century and is able to cover a lot of ground clearly because he starts with happened earlier and concludes with what has happened more recently.

In just these three sentences, we can see Thompson establishing different kinds of relationships between concepts. He is:

  • guiding us from familiar ideas into unfamiliar ones,
  • comparing two unlike things,
  • providing examples for his claims, and
  • presenting information chronologically.

Familiarity, contrast, example, and chronology are four common ways that topics can be related, but there are several others. The following lists identifies key relationships that we tend to find naturally in the world around us when we ask questions like, “Why did that happen?” and, “How do these two things fit together?” If you can obviously situate any your ideas within these well-known structures, then readers will be able to more quickly understand the connections you are establishing between your ideas. In the list that follows we identify these common relationship categories, explain them, and provide examples of sentences that establish these kinds of relationships. (All off these sample sentences are about research in Lake Mendota—the body of water just north of the UW-Madison campus.)

Familiarity–Connecting what readers know to what they don’t known.

Learning often involves drawing from existing knowledge in order develop new knowledge. As a result, this is one of the most important relationships you can establish in your writing. Start with what your readers know (either because you can assume a common knowledge or because you’ve already told them about this earlier in your paper or even in the preceding sentence) in order to then take them to something they don’t know.

Example: When you dive into a lake for a quick swim, you’re actually entering a diverse limnology laboratory—the research field for the ecologists who study inland waters.

Causation–Connecting the instigator(s) to the consequence(s)

We are very familiar with thinking about ideas and processes in relationship to cause and effect. You can use the prevalence of this relationship to your advantage by relating your ideas to causation.

Example: In the mid-19th century, the white sand beaches that used to line Lake Mendota were engulfed by the additional four feet of water that the Tenney Locks brought into the lake (Van Eyck).

Chronology–Connecting what issues in regard to when they occur.

This is particularly useful if you are describing a sequence of events or the steps of a process.

Example: In 1882, E.A. Birge was gathering data about the prevalence of blue-green algae in Lake Mendota (Van Eyck). By 1897, he was publishing about plankton (Birge). Even when he became president of UW-Madison several years later, his interest in freshwater lakes never waned (“Past presidents and chancellors”).


Lists–Connecting numerous elements.

You can think of this as a “this + this + this” model. You are saying that a collection of concepts or elements contribute equally or simultaneously to something. Within lists, it’s still important that you are being strategic about which elements you are identifying, describing, or analyzing first, second, and third.

Example: Across its studied history, Lake Mendota has been negatively affected by blue-green algae, Eurasian milfoil, spiny water fleas, and zebra mussels, among others (Van Enyck).

Part/Whole—Connecting numerous elements that make up something bigger.

This is a “this + this + this = that” model. You are showing how discrete elements form something else through their connections.

Example: Across generations, the damage Lake Mendota has sustained as a result of the unnaturally prolific prevalence of blue-green algae, Eurasian milfoil, spiny water fleas, and zebra mussels has irreparably altered these waters.

Contrast–Connecting two things by focusing on their differences.

This establishes a relationship of dis-similarity. It helps readers understand what something is by comparing it with something that it is not.

Example: But whereas boosting the population of walleye and northern perch in Lake Mendota effectively reduced the prevalence of Eurasian milfoil, scientists haven’t been able to develop a plan to respond to the damaging spiny water fleas (Van Eyck).

Example–Connecting a general idea to a particular instance of this idea.

Arguments are made more understandable and persuasive when you develop your overall claims in relationship to specific evidence that verifies or exemplifies those claims. Which examples will be the most persuasive (e.g., statistical data, historical precedent, anecdotes, etc.) will depend on the knowledge, interests, disposition, and expectations of your reader.

Example: “These new challenges demand new solutions, some behavioral (such as cleaning boats from lake to lake) and some research-driven (for example, identifying a natural predator for the invasive species)” (Van Eyck).

Importance–Connecting what is critical to what is more inconsequential.

This can also be thought of as connecting what is big to what is small. You may also choose to reverse these relationships by starting with what matters least or what is smallest and building to what is the most important or what is the most prominent. Just make sure that you are helping your reader understand which end of the spectrum you are starting with.

Example: Boaters were inconvenienced by the Eurasian milfoil clogging their propellers, but the plants’ real harm was dealt to the lake’s native flora and, consequently, its fish (Van Eyck).

Location–Connecting elements according to where they are placed in relationship to each other.

Even if you aren’t writing about geographical entities, you can still clarify how various ideas are positioned in relationship to each other.

Example: Whether or not the lake is pretty is peripheral to the issue of whether or not its natural ecosystems are in balance.

Similarity–Connecting two things by suggesting that they are in some way alike.

This highlights commonalities to show readers how elements or ideas are serving the same function.

Example: Just as invasive water flora (i.e., Eurasian milfoil) disrupted Lake Mendota’s ecosystem in the 1970s, in 2009 scientists discovered that the lake was being damaged by invasive water fauna (i.e., spiny water fleas) (Van Eyck).

While the examples provided above for each of these relationships is a sentence or short series of sentences where relationships are established through sequencing and transition words, you should also develop these kinds of common connections between ideas on a large scale through grammatical parallelism, paragraph placement, and your progression from one section to another.

Also, as can be seen in these examples, sometimes multiple different relationships are functioning simultaneously. For instance, consider again the example for the “Importance” item:

Example: Boaters were inconvenienced by the Eurasian milfoil clogging their propellers, but the plants’ real harm was dealt to the lake’s native flora and, consequently, its fish (Van Eyck).

The ideas in this sentence work within the following relationship categories:

  • Importance—Connecting what is more inconsequential (i.e., how boaters are bothered by Eurasian milfoil) to what is most critical (i.e., how the lake’s ecosystem is disrupted by Eurasian milfoil),
  • Contrast—Connecting two things (i.e., boaters’ concerns and the lake’s wellbeing) by focusing on their differences,
  • Causation—Connecting an instigator (i.e., Eurasian milfoil) to consequences (i.e., native plants’ destruction and, secondarily, the native animals’ destruction).

This collection of interwoven relational connections doesn’t mean that these ideas are jumbled; this is just an indication of how relationships can become interconnected.

Since clearly working within these relationship categories can be useful for organizing your key concepts as well as guiding readers through the structure of entire papers or particular paragraphs as well as sentences, different kinds of connections can be similarly layered across the whole structure of a paper. For example, if you are composing an argument about why it’s so hard for meteorologists to pin-point the severity and location of tornadoes, the overarching relationship of your ideas might be part/whole because you’re interested in how a range of factors contribute to a difficult prediction process. However, within your paragraphs, you might have to use chronological and causation relationships to describe the physical processes by which tornadoes are formed. And from sentence to sentence, you’ll need to make sure that you are starting with what’s familiar to your readers before moving into what’s new.


Joseph Williams and Joseph Bizup, in their handbook Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, identify the process of moving from what is known to what is unknown as “cohesion.” “Sentences are cohesive,” they write, “when the last few words of one sentence set up the information that appears in the first few words of the next” (67). They relate this careful sequencing to the issue of “flow”—readers find that ideas follow each other naturally when one sentence begins where the previous sentence left off.

Consider another annotated example passage from Derek Thompson’s economic analysis of the effects of automation and technology on jobs. This paragraph comes after one about how horses (once primary forces for industrial production) were made obsolete by transportation technology.

[1] Humans can do much more than trot, carry, and pull. [2] But the skills required in most offices hardly elicit our full range of intelligence. [3] Most jobs are still boring, repetitive, and easily learned. [4] The most-common occupations in the United States are retail salesperson, cashier, food and beverage server, and office clerk. [5] Together, these four jobs employ 15.4 million people—nearly 10 percent of the labor force, or more workers than there are in Texas and Massachusetts combined. [6] Each is highly susceptible to automation, according to the Oxford study.

Thompson’s most obvious application of Williams and Bizup’s concept of cohesion happens at the end sentence 4 and the beginning of sentence 5 where he first lists four professions (salesperson, cashier, server, and clerk) then begins the next sentence with, “these four jobs.”

But even on a conceptual level, Thompson is continuously moving from old information to new information. Consider this analysis of the conceptual shifts within each of these six sentences where Thompson’s ideas have been stripped down and his key concepts have been highlighted in different colors:

[1] Humans have more skills than horses. [2] Humans’ full range of skills aren’t always utilized by many office jobs. [3] Many jobs don’t push us to our full potential. [4] Here are the most common jobs. [5] These jobs employ many people. [6] These jobs could be eliminated through automation.

Thompson begins this paragraph by connecting a new idea (i.e., humans’ present occupational relationship to technology) to an old idea from the previous paragraph (i.e., horse’s past relationship to technology). After introducing the human subject, he then uses it to bring in his next topic: workplace skills. Then, through skills he brings in the issue of jobs, and jobs eventually lead him to the issue of automation. This sequence holds together like a line of conceptual dominoes.

Connecting new ideas to old is a practice that you should implement across sentences, paragraphs, and even whole sections of your writing. However, be careful. If this practice becomes heavy-handed or overdone, your writing can become patronizing to your readers. Make sure that you are clearly and comprehensively connecting ideas and not just sequencing subjects.


In Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, Joseph Williams and Joseph Bizup also write about the importance of coherence. While “cohesion” and “coherence” sound similar, they are two different things. “Cohesion” is about ideas that connect to each other “the way two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle do,” whereas “coherence” “is when all the sentences in a piece of writing add up to a larger whole” (69). Sometimes this is also called “unity.” Coherence is achieved when the things you are writing about all clearly contribute to the same overarching topic. For example, let’s return to the domino example from above. The movement from humans to skills to jobs to automation works because Thompson’s larger article establishes a thematic connection between all of these topics: work changes in response to technological developments. Thompson is even able to start this paragraph with an otherwise unexpected reference to horses because in the previous paragraph he has shown his readers how horses also relate to this theme of work changing in response to technological development. Within your writing, it’s important to make sure that all of your smaller ideas are related to and pointed towards the same goal.

Williams and Bizup suggest one way of making sure that your writing is coherent or unified is to pay attention to what each of your sentences is about—its subject (the noun or pronoun that guides a sentence) and topic (the idea that is the focus of that sentence). In most sentences, your subject and topic should be the same thing. Also, most of the time your topic should be short and direct, and each paragraph should be primarily dedicated to one topic. As an example, consider again this paragraph from the Thompson article about human skills, jobs, and automation. The subjects/topics of each sentence have been highlighted.

1] Humans can do much more than trot, carry, and pull. [2] But the skills required in most offices hardly elicit our full range of intelligence. [3] Most jobs are still boring, repetitive, and easily learned. [4] The most-common occupations in the United States are retail salesperson, cashier, food and beverage server, and office clerk. [5] Together, these four jobs employ 15.4 million people—nearly 10 percent of the labor force, or more workers than there are in Texas and Massachusetts combined. [6] Each is highly susceptible to automation, according to the Oxford study.

Note that after setting up this paragraph in a way that connects back to the previous paragraph’s focus on horses, Thompson settles into the issue of jobs as his clear and primary focus. The final four sentences have some version of “jobs” as their subject and topic. This consistency allows him to develop coherent ideas about this one issue.

For more information about writing intentionally structured and unified paragraphs, check out our resource on paragraphing. Additionally, if you are trying to discern whether or not your paragraphs are functioning coherently across your entire paper, we recommend the practice of reverse outlining. You can find out more about this technique here.

Transition Words and Phrases

The best way to clearly communicate the logical pathways that connect your ideas is to make sure that you move smoothly from old information to new information (cohesion) and that your readers always understand how your primary topics contribute to the big picture of your overall argument (coherence). While we’ve considered ways that whole sentences and paragraphs can do this work, sometimes even individual words can help you establish clear, cohesive, and coherent relationships between your ideas. In writing these are often called “transition words.”


The following is a list of useful transition words and phrases. Following the list of common relationship categories provided above, these words are organized according to the kinds of relationships they frequently develop. Of course, establishing clear relationships between ideas requires much more than just dropping one of these into the start of a sentence, but used sparingly and carefully based on the logical associations they establish, these words can provide usefully obvious indications to your readers of the kind of connections you are trying to develop between your ideas.

Causation–Connecting instigator(s) to consequence(s).

as a result
and so

for that reason
on account of


Chronology–Connecting what issues in regard to when they occur.

at length
in the meantime

so far

this time
until now

Connecting numerous events.
Connecting numerous elements that make up something bigger.

and, or, not
as a result
even more

first, firstly
in addition
in the first place
in the second place

last, lastly
second, secondly, etc.

Contrast–Connecting two things by focusing on their differences.

after all
and yet
at the same time

in contrast

on the contrary
on the other hand

Example–Connecting a general idea to a particular instance of this idea.

as an illustration
e.g., (from a Latin abbreviation for “for example”)

for example
for instance
that is

to demonstrate
to illustrate

Importance–Connecting what is critical to what is more inconsequential.


most importantly

of less importance

Location–Connecting elements according to where they are placed in relationship to each other.

adjacent to

neighboring on

opposite to

Similarity–Connecting to things by suggesting that they are in some way alike.

by the same token
in like manner

in similar fashion
in the same way


Other kinds of transitional words and phrases

i.e., (from a Latin abbreviation for “that is”)
in other words

that is
that is to say
to clarify
to explain

to put it another way
to rephrase it


it is true

of course

to be sure



in conclusion
in the end

to conclude


in fact

of course
to repeat

without doubt


for this purpose
in order that

so that
to that end

to this end


in brief
in sum

in summary
in short

to sum up
to summarize

Works Cited

Ackerman, Diane. “I Sing the Body’s Pattern Recognition Machine.” The New York Times, 15 June 2004. Accessed 6 June 2018.

Birge, Edward Asahel. Plankton Studies on Lake Mendota. Harvard University Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoolog., 1897.

“Past presidents and chancellors.” Office of the Chancellor, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2016. Accessed 16 June 2018.

Thompson, Derek. “A World Without Work.” The Atlantic, July/August 2015, Accessed 14 June 2018.

Van Eyck, Masarah. “Lake Mendota: a scientific biography.” L&S News, College of Letters and Sciences University of Wisconsin-Madison, 29 Aug. 2016. Accessed 15 June 2018.

Williams, Joseph M. and Joseph Bizup. Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. 12th ed., Pearson, 2017.