This is part one of a five-part series.
“Flow” is an interesting concept. Among productivity gurus, “flow” most often refers to that elusive sweet spot within work where you’re getting things done with maximum efficiency and effectiveness. People used to call this state of work nirvana “the zone,” as in “I’m in the zone today; I have knocked out five projects already, and it’s only 1:30.”
But now, it’s all about flow: you need look no further than Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience for evidence.
Among writers, flow has been a sought-after concept for a long time. Flow is simultaneously easy to recognize and difficult to define. It is universally desired but too often achieved by happenstance. When I ask a group of students how they approach academic writing, at least one person usually says, “I like to read my paper over again after I’ve finished writing it to make sure it flows and to catch errors.” It’s as if in their minds the term “flow” represents the apotheosis of all good qualities that they want their papers to have. And actually, I quite agree with them: flow is the hallmark of good writing, and the hallmark of a good writer is attention to flow.
So what is flow, and how can we achieve it?
The secret to flow is that it isn’t one thing. Rather, it is comprised of several specific qualities that all result from a writer’s consideration of his or her reader’s needs. When a writer has presented the information in the most considerate way possible, the writing flows.It is important to recognize that when we talk about flow, we’re speaking from the reader’s perspective. Often the writer understands the connection among the draft’s ideas; whether the reader will is a different question.
So, in order to construct writing that flows, a writer must always have his or her reader in mind, particularly in revision. An old writing adage advises: write for yourself, revise for your reader. To look at your writing through your reader’s eyes, address the following questions, one at a time:
- Will the reader understand how each sentence connects to the one before it and the one after it?
- Have I as the writer provided enough detail so that the reader understands and accepts my point?
- Have I provided signposts that orient the reader as he or she progresses through my writing?
- Have I constructed my sentences in as clear and concise a manner as I can?
- Have I written in a clear, congenial tone that expresses to the reader how happy I am that he or she is taking the time to read what I have written?
We’ll approach each of these questions in turn. For now, let’s concentrate on constructing sentences that flow.
1. Apply the old-new contract. The old-new contract states that each sentence should begin by establishing its connection to the previous sentence. That’s the “old” part. Then, the sentence should provide its new nugget of information: the “new” part. Let’s see this in action.
Weak Example: She thanked me for my help and left the store. I whistled all the way home.
In this example, the reader has to make several assumptions to understand how the second sentence is related to the first. Whenever a reader has to fill in the blanks, there is the possibility of misunderstanding, which represents failure. That may sound harsh, but if the aim of writing is to communicate, and the reader isn’t picking up what you’re putting down, you are failing to communicate.
In this example, we may assume that “whistling” means that the narrator is happy. But is the narrator happy because the woman thanked the narrator, or because the woman left the store? As readers, we don’t know. And when a reader doesn’t know what to think, the reader may feel — justifiably so — as though the writer has not taken good care of him or her.
Stronger Example: She thanked me for my help and left the store. Remembering her gratitude hours later, I whistled all the way home.
This example, in contrast, applies the old-new contract. The portion in bold refers the reader back to the previous sentence and prepares the reader for this sentence’s new information, which is how the narrator felt. The questions I raised in the above example are answered here.
2. Employ the magic of conjunctive adverbs. Often, weak flow is the result of a breakdown in logic. The writer understands that he or she has switched gears, but without a clue, the reader will be left behind. Conjunctive adverbs indicate how an idea is logically related to the idea before it.
Weak Example: Dogs make great pets. They can be difficult to discipline.
Since the writer did not use a conjunctive adverb here, the reader is unprepared for the radical switch in logic that takes place between these sentences. The example seems to suggest that a great pet would be difficult to discipline.
Stronger Example: Dogs make great pets. However, they can be difficult to discipline.
This example shows that the two sentences make contrasting points. Now the reader understands the writer’s logic.
Here is a list of some conjunctive adverbs (and adverbial phrases) to get the ideas flowing:
above all, accordingly, admittedly, again, also, anyway, as, besides, certainly, consequently, finally, for example, for instance, furthermore, hence, however, in addition, incidentally, in conclusion, indeed, in particular, instead, likewise, meanwhile, moreover, more specifically, nevertheless, next, nonetheless, now, on the other hand, otherwise, rather, similarly, still, then, therefore, thus, undoubtedly
3. Use referents judiciously. When you’re trying to achieve flow, work to make everything clear. Sometimes, a writer can improve clarity by adding a pronoun referent like “this.” But when “this” could possibly refer to more than one thing, you must clarify further to avoid communication failure (see number 1). Here’s an example:
Weak Example: Sam laughed and joked as he helped himself to seconds of dessert. I was ticked off.
Again, the reader may not be clear on what happened here. Let’s try adding a referent:
Sam laughed and joked as he helped himself to seconds of dessert. This ticked me off.
This is closer, but it’s still not crystal clear because “this” could refer to several things. What exactly ticked the narrator off?
Stronger Example: Sam laughed and joked as he helped himself to seconds of dessert. This blatant display of selfishness ticked me off.
Sam laughed and joked as he helped himself to seconds of dessert. That joke ticked me off.
These techniques all have one thing in common: to construct sentences that flow, you must know what you mean to say. If you’re not clear on how the two statements relate, then the reader has no chance. That’s why flow is so important.