Every writing teacher or coach ever has had a student ask this question, “Does my writing flow?” I’d bet money on it. Writers ask it because they know that the piece isn’t flowing, but they have no idea how to fix it or even how to define flow. They just know they haven’t achieved it.
Defining flow in a piece of writing is a challenge. It’s like the definition of “voice” that Rebecca Rule and Susan Wheeler offer in their book True Stories, Guides for Writing from Your Life.
Voice “is like sex appeal in a person. You know it when you see it, but you probably can’t explain it” (178).True Stories, Guides for Writing from Your Life.
Flow in writing is similar. You know when it’s missing, but you can’t explain it.
In fact, in a cursory search of my copious collection of writing books, not one specifically mentions “flow.” There’s no clear-cut definition of it because it’s slippery and totally subjective. But don’t despair. Just because it’s hard to define or explain, there are specific ways to achieve flow in a piece of writing.
First, know that flow happens in revision. Don’t try to get there on your first draft. Use the following questions and steps to guide your revision as you go through your manuscript.
Check for Flow at the Macro Level
By macro level, I mean your piece as a whole, whether that piece is a section of your text, a chapter, or a whole book. You want to look at your whole piece through the lens of ideas and narrative drive.
Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Do the ideas flow clearly from one to the next?
- Is there a logical order in how you’ve arranged the sections/pieces of your text?
- Is there a clear throughline/argument/point for each section? And, does that point clearly lead to the next one?
- Does each section stay focused on the topic at hand? Or, have you strayed off into pages of backstory or info dumps filled with tangential information your reader may not need to understand the point you’re making? Or, if they do need this information, where might it fit better or how might you revise and tighten your presentation of it?
- Cut, cut, cut!!! If you’ve got too much, cut it to help with the flow of ideas.
- Are there any gaps where more information is needed? Did you make any leaps in logic that your reader might not be able to follow?
- Have you made assumptions about the readers’ level of knowledge or understanding of your topic?
- Does the pacing work? Have you broken up your content with anecdotes, stories, research, and facts? Or do you have big long chunks of one type of information? Supporting your argument with only one type of support can break up the flow because it can get boring for readers.
- Is there consistency in voice and tone?
- For example, Brene Brown writes about highly academic topics but her voice is like she’s sitting down at coffee explaining her ideas to her BFF (her reader) rather than sounding like a highly educated professor enlightening her readers with her vast amounts of knowledge. See the difference?
- Read your piece out loud to check for consistency in voice. You can hear things that you don’t often pick up when you’re reading silently on the screen.
Go through your piece and revise with the above questions. If you’re struggling to evaluate your own writing, give this list or some of the questions from it that you’re struggling with to a beta reader, critique partner, or writing coach for feedback.
When you’ve revised at the macro level, you’re ready to zero in on the micro level of your piece.
Check for Flow at the Micro Level
The micro level of a piece of writing refers to the paragraph, sentence, and word level.
Here are some questions to ask yourself as you revise for flow at this level:
- Have you varied your sentence structure in terms of length and construction?
- Some short simple sentences are fine, but you also want to include compound and complex sentence structures. You don’t want to write a first-grade primer. To get a sense of what I mean grab any of the Harry Potter books. J. K. Rowling is a master at varying her sentence structure in fiction—and her writing flows.
- Have you varied your word choices? Paste your text into one of those word cloud programs online to see what you tend to repeat. You might be surprised!
- Check for and cut repetition and excessive wordiness.
- Alternatively, not enough description and detail can break the flow, so have you included enough description to draw your reader in?
- Are there transitions between sentences and paragraphs? Does one lead into the next?
- Or, have you used headings, sub-headings, or visual elements as transitions to move your reader from one idea to the next?
To understand flow, read writers whose work flows, like J.K. Rowling or Brene Brown! See what they do and how they move from idea to idea at the big picture level and at the sentence level.
Then, write. Put it into practice.
This is one of those skills that will get easier the more you write. You’ll get a sense of your own voice and style, and as you work with teachers, writing coaches, editors, or readers, you’ll get feedback that you can use to learn and improve.
Now I’m curious. When you read, do you notice when a piece doesn’t flow? What specifically do you notice about it? share in the comments!