We talked last about breaking up the Oreo cookie model of paragraph construction. brick-wallNow it’s time to knock down another writing convention from the past: The oh-so-elegant transition from one section to another.

What’s a transition?

Transitions aren’t clear-cut elements of writing, such as the grammatical rules controlling subject/verb agreements or noun/pronoun alignment. Rather, transitions are the contextual glue that connects one thought to another.

Sometimes a word or two – conditional phrases, qualifiers – act as transitions. Often, though, an entire sentence is constructed as a transition between the sentence that preceded it and those that follow.

In years past, writers learned to connect the bricks of sentences, paragraphs and pages with the mortar of transitions. Transitions eased the reader down this brick road, step by step.

When transitions became a problem

The digital age forced writers to rethink transitions. Suddenly, seamlessly guiding readers from one thought to another became counterproductive. Why?

  • Online audiences are unlikely to read every word or sentence on a page. They’re scanning, looking for snippets of information.
  • Online readers don’t read linearly – one page after another – but jump from page to page in no special order.
  • Using transitions in online writing forces readers backward, rather than letting them move ahead.
  • So pages need to stand on their own, with no transition connecting them.
  • The same applies to paragraphs WITHIN a page. Readers want to pick up the information they need, wherever it is on a site, as quickly as possible.
  • This is even more important as readers use mobile devices to get their information. Transitions get lost as you’re swiping from one section to another.

That doesn’t mean your writing should be jerky and haphazard. It needs structure. But let the organization itself – the individual bricks, aligned logically – carry the reader rather than mandatory transitions.

How to minimize transitions

You can’t completely eliminate transitions. Connecting thoughts still matters. But the connections are within discrete units of information.

A metaphor for how this works: You’re stacking bite-sized pieces of info food on a wall that readers, like birds, will swoop in, grab in their beaks and fly away. Satisfied, they may either return for another bite or keep flying.

If what you’ve stacked isn’t bite-sized, they may sharply bank away to another site.

One way to do this is to think of – and draft – your piece like an outline. Here’s why:

  • Outlines are by nature devoid of transitions.
  • Yet they carry an implicit logic.
  • Take the individual phrases and sentences of your outline and expand them – clear enough to be readable, but separated in sections that can be consumed on their own.

The danger of story form in online writing

Here’s a thought that may throw you: Despite the new love for stories to engage audiences, it’s probably best in the online environment to avoid the traditional story form.

The story is built on transitions, moving you from the intro to development of the theme to a conclusion. A tightly constructed story is dependent on well-crafted transitions. That’s a beautiful thing in a novel or a short story or anything that wants to pull you into the world it creates.

Online, it’s a problem. Readers often aren’t patient enough to follow a detailed story – not even one that’s, say, 10 paragraphs long.

I’ll address various forms of case studies/success stories in a future post to show where story form makes sense. As a default, digital case studies/success stories should rely on subheads and bullet points to make them easy to scan.

Looking for an example? You just read one

Take a look. This piece let you grab and go with whatever information you needed:

  • What’s a transition
  • Why they should be minimized in online writing
  • How to minimize them
  • Why transition-rich stories are best avoided on the web

Truth be told, I consciously had to avoid transitions between the sections when writing this. As someone who came up through the print world, it’s much easier for me to create the old-style bricks-and-mortar structure of stories and essays that assume you’re paying attention to every precious word I type.

But it really doesn’t matter how you get to the final piece. All that matters is that you give your online readers something they can easily pick up and swallow. It turns out that at the digital dinner table, transition glue isn’t too tasty.