Hinges and Stitches: Thinking About Transitions in Writing

I was winging it in the classroom the other day, analyzing some paragraphs in a response to a very important landmark physics paper and how they transition, and I hit on an image that I think is going to be useful for a long time: hinges and stitches.

My class uses Graff and Birkenstein’s excellent They Say I Say textbook, which has some very memorable diagrams of hands reaching out and pointing to illustrate how transitions can work in writing. I like this image, and we used some of that vocabulary of course.

But in discussing how an argument can change direction in a transition moment, I found myself using the verb “hinge”: this hinges between what was talked about before, and what is being talked about after.

In the example we were looking at, this is a hinge transition:

Most contemporary physicists are concerned with technical, big-picture questions: Why do neutrinos have mass when the Standard Model says that they shouldn’t? Why are quantum field theory and general relativity irreconcilable even though both are empirically valid? Can nuclear fusion be used as an efficient power source? And so on. These questions are important but they aren’t really in line with the sort of everyday, practical problems that occupy the minds of the general public. For example, are cats liquids or solids?

From “Are Cats Liquid” by Panda the Red

The hinge here is between focusing on what physicists are concerned with and focusing on, instead, what the general public is concerned with. It’s a small hinge, but a hinge.

Here’s a diagram of how the hinge works:

A crudely drawn diagram showing how an argument changes direction when connected with a hinge transition.
Hinges change direction abruptly

Another example of a hinge is where Panda the Red writes:

Enough joking around.
While Fardin’s paper was obviously intended to be humorous, it does at least play at taking the question seriously and discusses the question using the language of modern rheology, the branch of mechanics that studies the motion of materials that have both fluid and solid characteristics. 

Panda the Red, “Are Cats Liquid”

“Enough joking around” is a stock phrase that, as far as I know, always functions as a hinge. It says to the reader “It’s ok if you were laughing before now, but please believe I actually have a real point here, and I’m about to get to it” or maybe “What came before was meant to be fun, but now I want to be (at least a little) serious.” And as if that weren’t clear enough, Panda the Red elaborates further with a hinge-like phrase (part of the same hinge, really) that amplifies “enough joking around” by saying “While Fardin’s paper was obviously intended to be humors, it does at least play at taking the question seriously.” That is, in essence, the same as saying “enough joking around” but specific to the topic.

Likewise, just before that, Panda the Red uses a section heading to change direction in the argument from literature review to definitions. Section headings are another kind of overt hinge.

But not all transitions represent a change in direction the way that this sentence (which is a hinge) does. Some simply flow together, like blending paint on a canvas, rather than turning. And as I illustrated a diagram similar to Graff and Birkenstein’s reaching arms, I noticed something: it was stitching.

Stitching pulls from both sides of a transition moment, pointing back and forward simultaneously, the way that stitches cross the boundary of both pieces of fabric and move back and forth, pulling disparate pieces together into one joined object. (in fact, repeating the word “stitching” between the previous paragraph and this paragraph is a kind of stitching)

Stitches require more than one moment of transition; they blend material together and blur the lines between the two portions of the argument, in the way that actual stitches can be used to blend two areas of embroidery together or to make two pieces of fabric interact with and conform to each other.

That is, stitching looks like this:

Here’s an example of stitching in Panda the Red’s post:

For example, are cats liquids or solids?
The earliest (c. 2014) researcher to have seriously investigated this question seems to be a person named Tom who submitted his findings to the Funny Animals section of the journal Bored Panda in an article entitled “15 Proofs That Cats are Liquids.”

Panda the Red, “Are Cats Liquid?”

Just as some stitches run back and some run forth, we have a question pointing the reader forward into the next paragraph, and then a relative article—”this question”—that points back, reminding the reader of the previous topic and attaching the new topic.

Stitches are accomplished with questions and answers, repeated phrases or concepts, relative pronouns, and other strategies that point back and forth over a boundary in a text. Basically anything that asks the reader to look backward or forward can be considered a stitch here.

The key difference is that stitches do not represent a major shift in direction in an argument, while hinges do. Hinges noticeably turn an argument. Stitches keep it going in a similar, but slightly different, direction, adding more material and gently shaping it the way seams in a garment might do.

Both hinges and stitches can add material, of course. A hinge adds a door to a frame. A stitch adds fabric to fabric, or perhaps it strengthens fabric where there are holes or merely embellishes it. While hinges are more noticeable and easier to highlight, stitches are a little more versatile.

Most writers, however, are using both fluidly and constantly. Words flow. Stitches and hinges are just a model for how ideas connect to each other through that flow of words.

So how can you use this in your own writing or teaching? (notice that this is a hinge)

Transitions are often a focus in revision. Visualizing and identifying transitions, and applying some kind of systematic vocabulary, can help writers figure out areas for extra attention when revising. It can also help writers map out their arguments (or in narrative writing, the flow of a scene).

There already exist, of course, plenty of metaphors for transition moments. But as I like to say, this is just another tool in your toolbox.

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