This One Weird Trick Will Make Your Writing Flow

A piece of writing has “flow” when it reads naturally and its ideas are easy to follow. Writing teachers often treat flow as a mystical, unteachable property of good writing. In fact there is nothing mystical about it; it has to do with connections. When we write, we discover, create and illustrate connections among ideas. The more thoughtfully and convincingly we illustrate these connections, the more readers should feel that our writing “flows.” Keeping the readers’ experience in mind, we might also choose the simplest language that will get the job done. But simple language without clear connections will only help readers be more certain that they are confused. It’s important, then, to practice drawing clear connections as we write.

One simple method of practice is to include in each sentence a significant word from the previous one.  At first, this method will feel awkward. It is awkward to force this artificial process into our writing. Sometimes this can be done by pulling a word from the previous sentence down to the one we are composing, whereas other times it can be done by editing the previous sentence to include a word from the current sentence. Early on, the process and the writing it produces may seem very artificial. It may even seem like this method produces even clunkier, more mechanical prose than our ordinary way of writing. Varying sentence structures can help to eliminate some of the mechanical feel, but an artificial aftertaste may remain. This is, after all, an artificial exercise. In the end, what’s important is not whether the exercise itself produces smooth and natural prose. Rather, the point is to practice composing sentences with care and thinking explicitly about drawing connections among ideas. As we practice, the results (and our writing in other contexts) should come to feel more natural.

Speaking of other contexts, one might wonder whether a paper written this way could be good enough to turn in for a grade. It could, with a significant amount of work. It’s a lot of work to craft the connections between sentences the exercise requires while also fulfilling an assignment. Certainly, a writer who rises to the craft challenge should be producing fairly coherent prose. Whether the ideas are also coherent, let alone correct for the assignment, is an open question. Another question is whether a reader will notice that you’ve used this exercise in a piece of writing. If the writer maintains a thread of meaning and uses a variety of sentences, as I have tried to do in this post, most readers will probably not notice.

- By Aaron Hoover