“AS A RESULT”
Connecting the Parts
WE ONCE HAD A STUDENT named Bill, whose characteristic sentence pattern went something like this.
Spot is a good dog. He has fleas.
“Connect your sentences,” we urged in the margins of Bill’s papers. “What does Spot being good have to do with his fleas?” “These two statements seem unrelated. Can you connect them in some logical way?” When comments like these yielded no results, we tried inking in suggested connections for him.
Spot is a good dog, but he has fleas.
Spot is a good dog, even though he has fleas.
But our message failed to get across, and Bill’s disconnected sentence pattern persisted to the end of the semester.
And yet Bill did focus well on his subjects. When he mentioned Spot the dog (or Plato, or any other topic) in one sentence, we could count on Spot (or Plato) being the topic of the following sentence as well. This was not the case with some of Bill’s classmates, who sometimes changed topic from sentence to sentence or even from clause to clause within a single sentence. But because Bill neglected to mark his connections, his writing was as frustrating to read as theirs. In all these cases, we had to struggle to figure out on our own how the sentences and paragraphs connected or failed to connect with one another.
What makes such writers so hard to read, in other words, is that they never gesture back to what they have just said or forward to what they plan to say. “Never look back” might be their motto, almost as if they see writing as a process of thinking of something to say about a topic and writing it down, then thinking of something else to say about the topic and writing that down, too, and on and on until they’ve filled the assigned number of pages and can hand the paper in. Each sentence basically starts a new thought, rather than growing out of or extending the thought of the previous sentence.
When Bill talked about his writing habits, he acknowledged that he never went back and read what he had written. Indeed, he told us that, other than using his computer software to check for spelling errors and make sure that his tenses were all aligned, he never actually reread what he wrote before turning it in. As Bill seemed to picture it, writing was something one did while sitting at a computer, whereas reading was a separate activity generally reserved for an easy chair, book in hand. It had never occurred to Bill that to write a good sentence he had to think about how it connected to those that came before and after; that he had to think hard about how that sentence fit into the sentences that surrounded it. Each sentence for Bill existed in a sort of tunnel isolated from every other sentence on the page. He never bothered to fit all the parts of his essay together because he apparently thought of writing as a matter of piling up information or observations rather than building a sustained argument. What we suggest in this chapter, then, is that you converse not only with others in your writing but with yourself: that you establish clear relations between one statement and the next by connecting those statements.
This chapter addresses the issue of how to connect all the parts of your writing. The best compositions establish a sense of momentum and direction by making explicit connections among their different parts, so that what is said in one sentence (or paragraph) both sets up what is to come and is clearly informed by what has already been said. When you write a sentence, you create an expectation in the reader’s mind that the next sentence will in some way echo and extend it, even if—especially if—that next sentence takes your argument in a new direction.
It may help to think of each sentence you write as having arms that reach backward and forward, as the figure below suggests. When your sentences reach outward like this, they establish connections that help your writing flow smoothly in a way readers appreciate. Conversely, when writing lacks such connections and moves in fits and starts, readers repeatedly have to go back over the sentences and guess at the connections on their own. To prevent such disconnection and make your writing flow, we advise following a “do-it-yourself” principle, which means that it is your job as a writer to do the hard work of making the connections rather than, as Bill did, leaving this work to your readers.
This chapter offers several strategies you can use to put this principle into action: (1) using transition terms (like “therefore” and “as a result”); (2) adding pointing words (like “this” or “such”); (3) developing a set of key terms and phrases for each text you write; and (4) repeating yourself, but with a difference—a move that involves repeating what you’ve said, but with enough variation to avoid being redundant. All these moves require that you always look back and, in crafting any one sentence, think hard about those that precede it.
Notice how we ourselves have used such connecting devices thus far in this chapter. The second paragraph of this chapter, for example, opens with the transitional “And yet,” signaling a change in direction, while the opening sentence of the third includes the phrase “in other words,” telling you to expect a restatement of a point we’ve just made. If you look through this book, you should be able to find many sentences that contain some word or phrase that explicitly hooks them back to something said earlier, to something about to be said, or both. And many sentences in this chapter repeat key terms related to the idea of connection: “connect,” “disconnect,” “link,” “relate,” “forward,” and “backward.”
For readers to follow your train of thought, you need not only to connect your sentences and paragraphs to each other, but also to mark the kind of connection you are making. One of the easiest ways to make this move is to use transitions (from the Latin root trans, “across”), which help you cross from one point to another in your text. Transitions are usually placed at or near the start of sentences so they can signal to readers where your text is going: in the same direction it has been moving, or in a new direction. More specifically, transitions tell readers whether your text is echoing a previous sentence or paragraph (“in other words”), adding something to it (“in addition”), offering an example of it (“for example”), generalizing from it (“as a result”), or modifying it (“and yet”).
The following is a list of commonly used transitions, categorized according to their different functions.
furthermore in addition
by extension in other words in short
as an illustration consider
in fact indeed moreover so too
to put it another way to put it bluntly
to put it succinctly ultimately
for instance specifically
to take a case in point
CAUSE AND EFFECT
accordingly as a result consequently hence
along the same lines in the same way
although it is true
as a result
to sum up
Ideally, transitions should operate so unobtrusively in a piece of writing that they recede into the background and readers do not even notice that they are there. It’s a bit like what happens when drivers use their turn signals before turning right or left: just as other drivers recognize such signals almost unconsciously, readers should process transition terms with a minimum of thought. But even though such terms should function unobtrusively in your writing, they can be among the most powerful tools in your vocabulary. Think how your heart sinks when someone, immediately after praising you, begins a sentence with “but” or “however.” No matter what follows, you know it won’t be good.
Notice that some transitions can help you not only to move from one sentence to another, but to combine two or more sentences into one. Combining sentences in this way helps prevent the choppy, staccato effect that arises when too many short sentences are strung together, one after the other. For instance, to combine Bill’s two choppy sentences (“Spot is a good dog. He has fleas.”) into one, better-flowing sentence, we suggested that he rewrite them as “Spot is a good dog, even though he has fleas.”
Transitions like these not only guide readers through the twists and turns of your argument but also help ensure that you have an argument in the first place. In fact, we think of words like “but,” “yet,” “nevertheless,” “besides,” and others as argument words, since it’s hard to use them without making some kind of argument. The word “therefore,” for instance, commits you to making sure that the claims preceding it lead logically to the conclusion that it introduces. “For example” also assumes an argument, since it requires the material you are introducing to stand as an instance or proof of some preceding generalization. As a result, the more you use transitions, the more you’ll be able not only to connect the parts of your text but also to construct a strong argument in the first place. And if you draw on them frequently enough, using them should eventually become second nature.
To be sure, it is possible to overuse transitions, so take time to read over your drafts carefully and eliminate any transitions that are unnecessary. But following the maxim that you need to learn the basic moves of argument before you can deliberately depart from them, we advise you not to forgo explicit transition terms until you’ve first mastered their use. In all our years of teaching, we’ve read countless essays that suffered from having few or no transitions, but cannot recall one in which the transitions were overused. Seasoned writers sometimes omit explicit transitions, but only because they rely heavily on the other types of connecting devices that we turn to in the rest of this chapter.
Before doing so, however, let us warn you about inserting transitions without really thinking through their meanings—using “therefore,” say, when your text’s logic actually requires “nevertheless” or “however.” So beware. Choosing transition terms should involve a bit of mental sweat, since the whole point of using them is to make your writing more reader-friendly, not less. The only thing more frustrating than reading Bill-style passages like “Spot is a good dog. He has fleas” is reading misconnected sentences like “Spot is a good dog. For example, he has fleas.”
USE POINTING WORDS
Another way to connect the parts of your argument is by using pointing words—which, as their name implies, point or refer backward to some concept in the previous sentence. The most common of these pointing words include “this,” “these,” “that,” “those,” “their,” and “such” (as in “these pointing words” near the start of this sentence) and simple pronouns like “his,” “he,” “her,” “she,” “it,” and “their.” Such terms help you create the flow we spoke of earlier that enables readers to move effortlessly through your text. In a sense, these terms are like an invisible hand reaching out of your sentence, grabbing what’s needed in the previous sentences and pulling it along.
Like transitions, however, pointing words need to be used carefully. It’s dangerously easy to insert pointing words into your text that don’t refer to a clearly defined object, assuming that because the object you have in mind is clear to you it will also be clear to your readers. For example, consider the use of “this” in the following passage.
Alexis de Tocqueville was highly critical of democratic societies, which he saw as tending toward mob rule. At the same time, he accorded democratic societies grudging respect. This is seen in Tocqueville’s statement that . . .
When “this” is used in such a way it becomes an ambiguous or free-floating pointer, since readers can’t tell if it refers to Tocqueville’s critical attitude toward democratic societies, his grudging respect for them, or some combination of both. “This what?” readers mutter as they go back over suchpassages and try to figure them out. It’s also tempting to try to cheat with pointing words, hoping that they will conceal or make up for conceptual confusions that may lurk in your argument. By referring to a fuzzy idea as “this” or “that,” you might hope the fuzziness will somehow come across as clearer than it is.
You can fix problems caused by a free-floating pointer by making sure there is one and only one possible object in the vicinity that the pointer could be referring to. It also often helps to name the object the pointer is referring to at the same time that you point to it, replacing the bald “this” in the example above with a more precise phrase like “this ambivalence toward democratic societies” or “this grudging respect.”
REPEAT KEY TERMS AND PHRASES
A third strategy for connecting the parts of your argument is to develop a constellation of key terms and phrases, including their synonyms and antonyms, that you repeat throughout your text. When used effectively, your key terms should be items that readers could extract from your text in order to get a solid sense of your topic. Playing with key terms also can be a good way to come up with a title and appropriate section headings for your text.
Notice how often Martin Luther King Jr. uses the key words “criticism,” “statement,” “answer,” and “correspondence” in the opening paragraph of his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
Dear Fellow Clergymen:
While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your
recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR., “Letter
from Birmingham Jail”
Even though King uses the terms “criticism” and “answer” three times each and “statement” twice, the effect is not overly repetitive. In fact, these key terms help build a sense of momentum in the paragraph and bind it together.
For another example of the effective use of key terms, consider the following passage, in which the historian Susan Douglas develops a constellation of sharply contrasting key terms around the concept of “cultural schizophrenics”: women like herself who, Douglas claims, have mixed feelings about the images of ideal femininity with which they are constantly bombarded by the media.
In a variety of ways, the mass media helped make us the cultural schizophrenics we are today, women who rebel against yet submit to prevailing images about what a desirable, worthwhile woman should be. . . . [T]he mass media has engendered in many women a kind of cultural identity crisis. We are ambivalent toward femininity on the one hand and feminism on the other. Pulled in opposite directions—told we were equal, yet told we were subordinate; told we could change history but told we were trapped by history—we got the bends at an early age, and we’ve never gotten rid of them.
When I open Vogue, for example, I am simultaneously infuriated and seduced. . . . I adore the materialism; I despise the materialism. . . . I want to look beautiful; I think wanting to look beautiful is about the most dumb-ass goal you could have. The magazine stokes my desire; the magazine triggers my bile. And this doesn’t only happen when I’m reading Vogue; it happens all the time. . . . On the one hand, on the other hand—that’s not just me—that’s what it means to be a woman in America.
To explain this schizophrenia . . .
SUSAN DOUGLAS, Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media
In this passage, Douglas establishes “schizophrenia” as a key concept and then echoes it through synonyms like “identity crisis,” “ambivalent,” “the bends”—and even demonstrates it through a series of contrasting words and phrases:
rebel against / submit
told we were equal / told we were subordinate
told we could change history / told we were trapped by history infuriated / seduced
I adore / I despise
I want / I think wanting . . . is about the most dumb-ass goal
stokes my desire / triggers my bile
on the one hand / on the other hand
These contrasting phrases help flesh out Douglas’s claim that women are being pulled in two directions at once. In so doing, they bind the passage together into a unified whole that, despite its complexity and sophistication, stays focused over its entire length.
REPEAT YOURSELF—BUT WITH A DIFFERENCE
The last technique we offer for connecting the parts of your text involves repeating yourself, but with a difference—which basically means saying the same thing you’ve just said, but in a slightly different way that avoids sounding monotonous. To effectively connect the parts of your argument and keep it moving forward, be careful not to leap from one idea to a different idea or introduce new ideas cold. Instead, try to build bridges between your ideas by echoing what you’ve just said while simultaneously moving your text into new territory.
Several of the connecting devices discussed in this chapter are ways of repeating yourself in this special way. Key terms, pointing terms, and even many transitions can be used in a way that not only brings something forward from the previous sentence but in some way alters it. When Douglas, for instance, uses the key term “ambivalent” to echo her earlier reference toschizophrenics, she is repeating herself with a difference—repeating the same concept, but with a different word that adds new associations.
In addition, when you use transition phrases like “in other words” and “to put it another way,” you repeat yourself with a difference, since these phrases help you restate earlier claims but in a different register. When you open a sentence with “in other words,” you are basically telling your readers that in case they didn’t fully understand what you meant in the last sentence, you are now coming at it again from a slightly different angle, or that since you’re presenting a very important idea, you’re not going to skip over it quickly but will explore it further to make sure your readers grasp all its aspects.
We would even go so far as to suggest that after your first sentence, almost every sentence you write should refer back to previous statements in some way. Whether you are writing a “furthermore” comment that adds to what you have just said or a “for example” statement that illustrates it, each sentence should echo at least one element of the previous sentence in some discernible way. Even when your text changes direction and requires transitions like “in contrast,” “however,” or “but,” you still need to mark that shift by linking the sentence to the one just before it, as in the following example.
Cheyenne loved basketball. Nevertheless, she feared her height would put her at a disadvantage.
These sentences work because even though the second sentence changes course and qualifies the first, it still echoes key concepts from the first. Not only does “she” echo “Cheyenne,” since both refer to the same person, but “feared” echoes “loved” by establishing the contrast mandated by the term “nevertheless.” “Nevertheless,” then, is not an excuse for changing subjects radically. It too requires repetition to help readers shift gears with you and follow your train of thought.
Repetition, in short, is the central means by which you can move from point A to point B in a text. To introduce one last analogy, think of the way experienced rock climbers move up a steep slope. Instead of jumping or lurching from one handhold to the next, good climbers get a secure handhold on the position they have established before reaching for the next ledge. The same thing applies to writing. To move smoothly from point to point in your argument, you need to firmly ground what you say in what you’ve already said. In this way, your writing remains focused while simultaneously moving forward.
“But hold on,” you may be thinking. “Isn’t repetition precisely what sophisticated writers should avoid, on the grounds that it will make their writing sound simplistic—as if they are belaboring the obvious?” Yes and no. On the one hand, writers certainly can run into trouble if they merely repeat themselves and nothing more. On the other hand, repetition is key to creating continuity in writing. It is impossible to stay on track in a piece of writing if you don’t repeat your points throughout the length of the text. Furthermore, writers would never make an impact on readers if they didn’t repeat their main points often enough to reinforce those points and make them stand out above subordinate points. The trick therefore is not to avoid repeating yourself but to repeat yourself in varied and interesting enough ways that you advance your argument without sounding tedious.
In this chapter, the authors offer you four specific strategies for “connecting the parts” in your writing. Before reflecting further on this advice, look back to your first formal essay (or some other piece of writing done for another class) and examine how effectively (or not) you connected the parts for your reader. Once you have done that, respond to the prompts below.
1. Why, according to the authors, is it important to “connect the parts” in a piece of writing? Please state this in your own words; do not use a direct quote from the chapter.
2. Which of the four strategies identified in this chapter do you think could be most effectively used to improve your own writing, and why? Please explain your reasoning in detail and offer specific examples to illustrate your point.