Transition Words and Phrases: Avoiding Box Car Writing

train with many boxcars on railroad tracks

If you stand next to the tracks when a train is traveling by it’s likely to make you dizzy (particularly if you stand too close). Pretty soon, the monotony of box cars or oil tanks, passing in front of you, one after the other, creates a lull on thinking. You could try to count them, but that might be worse than counting sheep to bring on sleep. This phenomenon can also occur in writing, when statement after statement is presented in successive fashion. This effect is particularly possible when writing nonfiction, irrespective of content. Facts are successively presented, one after the other. Boring. Then sleep. This type of writing can be characterized as ‘box car’ style. 

The best strategy to avoid this style of writing is to create a story line with structure that weaves together various statements. The story line can be built on any number of transition devices that offer different effects. The following transition devices are offered in As the authors of this resource write “As a ‘part of speech’ transition words are used to link words, phrases or sentences. They help the reader to progress from one idea (expressed by the author) to the next idea. Thus, they help to build up coherent relationships within the text.” Approximately 200 such devices are possible in the English language. The purpose is to create tension, expectations, agreement-disagreement, shifts in tone, etc. Transition devices are more typical across paragraphs than within but should be considered at any level. Following are the categories of transition devices from the weblink above (all of which are quoted from the site).

• Agreement / Addition / Similarity – The transition words like also, in addition, and, likewise, add information, reinforce ideas, and express agreement with preceding material.

• Opposition / Limitation / Contradiction – Transition phrases like but, rather and or, express that there is evidence to the contrary or point out alternatives, and thus introduce a change the line of reasoning (contrast).

• Cause / Condition / Purpose – These transitional phrases present specific conditions or intentions.

• Examples / Support / Emphasis – These transitional devices (like especially) are used to introduce examples as  support, to indicate importance or as an illustration so that an idea is cued to the reader.

• Effect / Consequence / Result – Some of these transition words (thus, then, accordingly, consequently, therefore, henceforth) are time words that are used to show that after a particular time there was a consequence or an effect.

• Conclusion / Summary / Restatement – These transition words and phrases conclude, summarize and / or restate ideas, or indicate a final general statement. Also some words (like therefore) from the Effect / Consequence category can be used to summarize.

• Time / Chronology / Sequence – These transitional words (like finally) have the function of limiting, restricting, and defining time. They can be used either alone or as part of adverbial expressions.

• Space / Location / Place – These transition words are often used as part of adverbial expressions and have the function to restrict, limit or qualify space. Quite a few of these are also found in the Time category and can be used to describe spatial order or spatial reference.

In WRN, the examples of these transition words and phrases can be entered as concepts and vocabulary, using the list provided in this website. In a very quick manner, it is possible to highlight the major categories used to determine if they are consistent and create the correct/intended structure.

Moral of this Blog: Writing structure is best conveyed by using some type of transition device which need to be considered on a holistic manner. Once developed, it’s best not to mix metaphors and use too many of them, either within or across their types.

Photo by Kate Gilova from