by Jonathan Adjemian
Published at 2020-01-08
There are plenty of different approaches to writing. Some writers like to let the words pour out on the page and clean and shape them later; some outline and structure in detail and then fill in the framework; others might be writing up point-form ideas developed through team work or provided by someone else.
Regardless of style, in non-fiction and argumentative writing a writer needs to take a certain number of distinct ideas, facts, or arguments and turn them into a connected, coherent, readable whole.
Happily, the English language offers no shortage of ways to connect and sequence ideas. In this blog, we’ll look quickly at one approach: The use of introductory words or phrases to connect two sentences.
As an editor, I find myself cutting unnecessary connecting phrases much more often than I add missing ones. Most writing — as well as speaking — consists of strings of related sentences.
As readers, we’re used to making connections for ourselves in general, and will assume coherence unless we encounter a “bump” that shakes our confidence.
As a writer, you may know that a paragraph is made up of four ideas that come from different note files, or even from different contributors; naturally, you might feel you have to do work to connect them. But a reader comes to the text as if it was a finished, polished, internally connected thing. Sometimes an unnecessary “In addition” or “However” can actually interrupt a reader’s flow rather than enhance it.
Your best friend here is the ability to read your own writing with some distance — to sit back and read as if you’re encountering the text for the first time. Often it helps to read out loud, or silently but at a speaking pace. (You can also, of course, outsource this to an editor).
If nothing jolts your reader-brain as it moves from sentence to sentence, there’s probably no need to add anything. If a connecting word or phrase jumps out at you or makes you loop back a sentence to figure out what’s going on, you should probably cut it; it’s a hindrance to coherence rather than a help.
If it feels like a style choice — more a way of signalling “this is serious / academic / writerly prose” than helping your content — you should ask yourself if that style choice is actually helping your aims in writing (spoiler alert: it probably isn’t).
Here are three different ways of connecting two sentences using introductory words or phrases:
Compounding: one sentence builds on or adds to the previous one. “As well,” “Additionally,” or “Also” are typical phrases to use.
Contrasting: one sentence contradicts the previous one, or adds surprising information. Typical phrases — with slightly different meanings — include “However,” “At the same time,” “Still,” or “Yet” (note that “Yet” usually doesn’t need a comma after it).
Disjunction: here the addition stops the reader from making a smooth connection, since the argument is taking a turn. Many of the same phrases that indicate contrast will work here, like “At the same time,” “Despite this,” or “Still” as will things like “Alternately” or “Meanwhile” …
It’s important to be aware of what function your connecting phrase is serving. Using a contrasting phrase to link two sentences whose meanings are complementary, or using a compounding phrase to connect two contrasting statements, will only confuse the reader. Consider this sentence:
“The dog walked down the street. However, the dog then visited its friend.”
Here, the “However” is unhelpful — there’s nothing about the two sentences that would make their combination surprising.
With sentences this simply and easily connected, the best choice is probably not to use a connector, or even to merge the two sentences: “The dog walked down the street, then visited its friend.”
Similarly, consider this sentence:
“The dog’s leg was injured. Also, the dog walked down the street.”
Here, the “Also” is a poor choice. Since the first sentence might invalidate the second (depending on the injury, walking might be impossible), a contrasting phrase will work best, perhaps “The dog’s leg was injured. Despite this, it walked down the street.”
You can also use introductory phrases to add to or colour your points in specific ways. Most adverbs or adverbial phrases can be used to introduce a sentence. There are many possibilities here, but here are two approaches:
To add emotion: words like “Depressingly,” “Excitingly,” or “Tellingly” can convey the tone or emotion of your argument to the reader in a quick, efficient way.
To contextualize: an introductory phrase can briefly bring in other people or ideas. Take for instance:
The dog walked down the street. To its owner’s dismay, it then visited its friend.
Here, “To its owner’s dismay” introduces, in four words, a new character (the owner) and an implied, if vague, backstory linking the characters.
As you write and revise your work, remember why you’re writing. What are you trying to convey, and to what audience? What response do you want to inspire in that audience? Then ask if your structure is helping you achieve that goal.
Connecting strategies that don’t go beyond “following the rules” or “writing the way I’m supposed to” are likely to feel arbitrary and disjointed. Focusing on your goal in writing can help turn connecting sentences into integral, powerful parts of your prose.