When students ask for feedback on their writing, one of the most common requests is to “check and see if it flows.” But what exactly is “flow?” Most of us know it when we see it in other people’s writing—their prose is somehow smooth, coherent, fluid—but it seems that few writers know how to put “flow” into more concrete terms and create it consciously in their own writing.
Before I share my tips for how to achieve flow, I can tell you how not to think about flow. Flow is not a gift that the writing gods bestow on some and not on others (it is a technique that anyone can learn). It is not something that “just happens” without a writer’s conscious intervention (okay, maybe that happens sometimes for experienced writers, but chances are they had to produce a lot of choppity-chop-chop prose in order to get there). And it is not what you feel after you’ve written a first draft and are really jazzed about an idea (when you return to write a second draft, you will wonder what drug you had been slipped when you swore you were channeling Hemingway the day before).
So flow is a learnable technique, and it’s nothing special when you get the hang of it. Yet it noticeably changes how your writing reads.
Some (minimal) grammatical knowledge is required here to grasp what I am about to show you, so before you continue reading, refresh yourself on what the subject of a sentence is. This will come in handy later.
Now read this paragraph:
For beginning and intermediate skiers, an excellent ski is the Hart Queen. A very thin layer of tempered ash, ash direct from the hardwood forests of Tennessee, is at its core. And to provide added strength and flexibility, two major innovations are used in its outer construction. Two sheets of ten-gauge steel are securely molded to its layer of ash for increased strength. A wrapping of highly active fiberglass surrounds its two steel sheets for increased flexibility.
How easy was it to read? In other words, how much did it flow?
Notice how many subjects this paragraph contains. Remember, the subject of a sentence tells who or what does the action. Think of it as your sentence’s centerpiece, where all of the attention is drawn. Here are the subjects of each sentence in this paragraph: skiers, layer, innovations, sheets, wrapping.
When there are so many different subjects in a paragraph, readers struggle to understand what a paragraph is about because their attention is pulled in too many directions at once.
Made sense when you had to look up a recipe, keep an article to “read later,” and check your 7 email accounts, but a day later… dafuck is this?
The point is, keep track how many distinct subjects your sentences contain. Keep it reasonable and take time to explain your ideas.
Next, make sure that your subjects logically connect to each other.
Look at how I revised the sample paragraph:
For beginning and intermediate skiers, an excellent ski is the Hart Queen. At its core is a very thin layer of tempered ash direct from the hardwood forests of Tennessee. Molded to this layer of ash are two sheets of ten-gauge steel, which provides increased strength. For increased flexibility, these two sheets are surrounded by a wrapping of highly active fiberglass.
What changes did you notice? I changed the order of the clauses in each sentence, but why?
This leads us to a very important formula:
Begin sentences by referring to old, already-known information and end sentences with new information:
Hart Queen (new) -> its (old). Note: “Its” is a possessive pronoun that refers back to Hart Queen, so it counts as old information.
Layer (new) -> layer (old)
Sheets (new), Increased (new) -> Sheets (old), Increased (old)
Notice how the sentences link more seamlessly together because you help to pace the flow of information to readers.
Flow, therefore, creates a rhythm: old, new, old, new, old, new. Using this model of old/new information can improve both coherence and cohesion in writing: all the parts connect, and readers can easily navigate your ideas because you’ve built those connections right into the prose itself.
I hope this helps to demystify the concept of “flow.” Remember, reduce the number of distinct subjects in a paragraph and connect one sentence to the next by using the “old-new” pattern. And one final comment… for God’s sake, leave this laborious grammatical editing until at least your second draft. There’s nothing wrong with a first draft looking like the sad browser screenshot above. First drafts are meant to be shitty.