Friday, May 28, 2010

Transitions, Transitions

About ten years ago, I worked as an aide in the writing center at our local high school. My coworker and I helped students with composition, proofreading, revisions, and anything else they needed to polish their assignments. The English teachers supplied us with helpful handouts.

After I worked there for one school year, the program lost its budget, I lost my job, and the students lost the opportunity to sign up for individual help beyond their teachers’ limited time.

Since then, I’ve held a variety of jobs: freelance writer, editor, and proofreader; speaker; author in residence; managing editor for an educational publishing company; English instructor at a nearby college. I’ve hung onto the handouts I used in that high school writing center all these years. From time to time, I still refer to them.

What do the paragraphs above have in common? All three begin with transitions. A transitions handout I saved from that high school job lists examples of some of the most common types:
  • Transitions for time or sequence (finally, later, next, first, second, third, etc.)
  • Transitions for connecting ideas already stated (besides, likewise, for instance, furthermore, for example, in addition)
  • Transitions for showing cause and effect (therefore, thus, consequently, as a result)
  • Transitions for comparing and contrasting ideas (otherwise, on the other hand, however, nevertheless)
  • Transitions for describing spatial relationships (above, below, beyond, nearby, across from, in the distance)
For the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about transitions. In writing, transitions perform the valuable function of locating a reader in time and space. In life, transitions can be times of great upheaval that make us long for an anchor, a safe harbor, a retreat, a way to help us locate ourselves.

Our older son has finished his first year of college and is home for the summer. In a few months, he and two friends will move into their own apartment. Our younger son is about to graduate from high school and itching to plunge into his own version of college independence. My husband and I find ourselves in a home we bought eighteen years ago (!) in a suburban school district where we hoped our kids would get a good education. When both boys head off to college in fall, our home will be too big for us. I’m itching, too, to make a transition into something more suitable for two with room for occasional visitors. We want peace and quiet, more room to garden, a smaller house on a larger plot of land.

At the same time, I’m in the middle of a short-term transition, the gap between semesters in my teaching job. I always plan to use this time to clear out, clean up, and prepare for the next semester's courses. But ever since I turned in last semester's grades, my brain and my time have been filled up with educational publisher assignments, planning for future events (see my schedule here), web site updates, a tiny bit of gardening, a visit from my sister and assorted family gatherings, a few birdwatching expeditions, and house hunting. I’m not clearing out nearly as much as I'm adding to my plate. As we prepare to move to a smaller living space, I need to make the transition now to tossing what I can’t use anymore. I need to be ruthless about recycling.

I will probably still hang onto those handouts.

Writing Workout: Creating New Transitions

One of the most overused transitions I can think of is “suddenly.” Many alternatives have also become clich├ęs: quick as a wink, in the blink of an eye, faster than the speed of light. How else could you express something that happens in a split second?
  • in a hummingbird’s wingbeat
  • in the time it takes to crack an egg into a pan
  • at the speed of a baby’s bottle crashing to the floor
What other overused transitions could you replace with something more original? Please send us your examples!

JoAnn Early Macken


Carmela Martino said...

I've been thinking about transitions, too, JoAnn. I love the examples of literary ones in your writing workout. They make me realize that my transitions in my historical novel should reflect the setting. I have to try to come up with a good example.

Michelle Sussman said...

This is a really fantastic post. I'm heading off to bookmark it right now. :-)

JoAnn Early Macken said...

Good point, Marti! I'd love to see what you come up with.

Thank you, Michelle!

Anonymous said...

1. When my autographed copy of Watch Out Turtle book arrived Friday afternoon I was ecstatic. I needed a boost and reading that gave me enough pep to carry on. I can't wait to jump into a second grade- sea life is in their science curriculum- and read it aloud. I know the second graders will love it.Thanks again!

2. When I read your thoughts about split seconds Billy Collin's poem SUDDENLY!! jumped into my mind! Here's a few stanzas.

By Billy Collins

Never use the word suddenly just to create tension.
-Writing Fiction

Suddenly, you were planting some yellow petunias
outside in the garden,
and suddenly I was in the study
looking up the word oligarchy for the thirty-seventh time.

When suddenly, without warning,
you planted the last petunia in the flat,
and I suddenly closed the dictionary
now that I was reminded of that vile form of governance.

A moment later, we found ourselves
standing suddenly in the kitchen
where you suddenly opened a can of cat food
and I just as suddenly watched you doing that.

JoAnn Early Macken said...

I hope the second graders enjoy learning about turtles, & I love the Billy Collins poem--thanks for passing it on!

Caroline McAlister said...

This was a great post. I am talking about transitions in my college writing class tonight and will use it. I loved the Billy Collins poem too and now I'm completely paranoid about the word suddenly.

Caroline McAlister
Author of Holy Mole!
Brave Donatella and the Jasmine Thief

JoAnn Early Macken said...

Ha! Caroline, we'd love to hear about your own alternatives to "suddenly."

Barbara said...

Thanks so much for the reminders of transitions.

like the flash of lightening
the rattle of frozen peas in a colander
the scratch of branches on the window screen
the thunk of a dead tennis ball

here's one I remember from college: "That went over like a pregnant pole vaulter."