Readers understand a message better when writers use explicit signals of what they want readers to get out of a document. Transitions like “unfortunately” are one type of explicit signal. (Headings are another — see Think long-term and be kind to readers with well-formatted documents.) In fact, transitions are also sometimes called logical connectives. Maybe that makes their function more obvious.
Consider two versions of an excerpt from Costco’s 2011 Summary Plan Description (SPD).
|For those who don’t enter revised elections within the 30 day deadline, certain automatic changes will apply. If you have declined healthcare you will not be automatically enrolled. If you do have healthcare coverage and you are:
When your status changes, your Life and AD&D Insurance coverage will change to the level available to other Employees with the same benefit status and years of Service as you.
|For those who don’t enter revised elections within the 30 day deadline, certain automatic changes will apply. For example, if you have declined healthcare you will not be automatically enrolled. However, if you do have healthcare coverage and you are:
Also, when your status changes, your Life and AD&D Insurance coverage will change to the level available to other Employees with the same benefit status and years of Service as you.
The version at right, with those three transitions I’ve highlighted in red, will increase comprehension of the content over the version at left. Why should Costco care? Because U.S. (ERISA) law requires that employers deliver SPDs that explain employee benefits “in a manner calculated to be understood by the average plan participant.”
Transitions are briefly explained in Chapter 9 of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences (3rd edition). If you’re using that book in a formal setting, you’ll find lots of exercises in that chapter that help you to identify opportunities to use transitions to control a reader’s interpretation in workplace documents. Here are some additional resources to help you learn about their use:
- a sample document, including both an original and revised version
- a brief video tutorial
- a list of research articles supporting my guidance
Enter feedback in the comments below if I can provide you with better resources.
Review the executive summary for a consultant’s report. The document was adapted for instructional purposes from a report produced by TishlerBise.
- Writer: employees of the planning consultant
- Readers: representatives of the city of Orange Beach, as well as interested citizens and businesses
- Bottom Line Message: specific fees on real estate development are recommended to support municipal services on newly developed land
Here’s a revised version of the executive summary with more effective transitions.
The executive summary is used in this 12-minute video about transitions in workplace documents.
There are a couple of posts here at Pros Write that deal with transitions . Just enter the term in the search field near the top of this page. If you want to see the research supporting my guidance, start with the following sources.
Campbell (1995). Coherence, continuity, and cohesion: Theoretical foundations for document design. Lawrence Erlbaum.
Chung (2000). Signals and reading comprehension — theory and practice. System, 28, pp. 247-259.