What this handout is about
This handout will explain what flow is, discuss how it works, and offer strategies to improve the flow of your writing.
What is flow?
Writing that “flows” is easy to read smoothly from beginning to end. Readers don’t have to stop, double back, reread, or work hard to find connections between ideas. Writers have structured the text so that it’s clear and easy to follow. But how do you make your writing flow? Pay attention to coherence and cohesion.
Coherence, or global flow, means that ideas are sequenced logically at the higher levels: paragraphs, sections, and chapters. Readers can move easily from one major idea to the next without confusing jumps in the writer’s train of thought. There’s no single way to organize ideas, but there are common organizational patterns, including (but not limited to):
- Chronological (e.g., a history or a step-by-step process)
- Grouping similar ideas (e.g., advantages / disadvantages; causes / effects)
- Moving from large to small (e.g., national to local) or vice versa (local to national)
- Assertion, evidence, reasoning (e.g., an argument essay)
- Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion (e.g., lab reports)
More than a single organizational strategy can be present in a single draft, with one pattern for the draft as a whole and another pattern within sections or paragraphs of that draft. Take a look at some examples:
- Assignment: Describe how domestic and international travel has changed over the last two centuries.
Primary pattern: chronological
Additional pattern: grouping
Travel in the 19th century: Domestic travel. International travel.
Travel in the 20th century: Domestic travel. International travel.
Assignment: “Analyze the contribution of support services to student success.”
Primary pattern: Assertion, evidence
Additional patterns: various
(Assertion) Students who actively use support services have a better college experience
(Chronological) Story of first-year student’s difficult experience in college
(Grouping) Social and psychological reasons students may avoid using resources
(Evidence) Research on academic resources and academic performance
(Evidence) Research on self-care resources and student well-being
(Chronological) Story of student’s much-improved second-year experience in college
Even though there are various patterns, there’s also a certain logic and consistency. If your readers can follow your organization and understand how you’re connecting your ideas, they will likely feel as though the essay “flows.”
You can also preview your organization through signposting. This strategy involves giving your readers a roadmap before they delve into the body of your paper, and it’s typically found near the beginning of a shorter essay or at the end of the first section of a longer work, such as a thesis. It may look something like this:
- “This paper examines the value of using resources in university settings. The first section describes the experience of a first-year student at a top-tier university who did not use resources. The following section describes possible reasons for not using them. It then describes the types of resources available and surveys the research on the benefits of using these resources. The essay concludes with an analysis of how the student’s experience changed after taking advantage of the available support.”
Try these two strategies to analyze the flow of your draft at the global level.
A reverse outline allows you to see how you have organized your topics based on what you actually wrote, rather than what you planned to write. After making the reverse outline, you can analyze the order of your ideas. To learn more about reverse outlining, you can watch our demo of this strategy, or read our Reorganizing Drafts handout for a more in-depth explanation. Some questions to consider:
- How am I ordering ideas? Can I describe the pattern?
- Why are the ideas presented in this order? Would they make more sense if I reorder them?
- What effect does the order of ideas have on my readers?
- How would reordering the information affect my paper?
You can use color coding to group similar ideas or ideas that are connected in various ways. After sorting your ideas into differently colored groups, figure out how these ideas relate to one another, both within color groups and between color groups. For example, how do blue ideas relate to one another? How does this blue idea connect to this yellow idea? We have a short color coding demo that illustrates using the strategy before you draft. The reverse outlining demo above illustrates this strategy applied to an existing draft.
Cohesion, or local flow, means that the ideas are connected clearly at the sentence level. With clear connections between sentences, readers can move smoothly from one sentence to the next without stopping, doubling back, or trying to make sense of the text. Fortunately, writers can enhance cohesion with the following sentence-level strategies.
Readers can process familiar (“known”) information more quickly than unfamiliar (“new”) information. When familiar information appears at the beginning of sentences, readers can concentrate their attention on new information in later parts of the sentence. In other words, sequencing information from “known to new” can help enhance the flow.
The paragraphs below illustrate this sequencing. They both contain the same information, but notice where the known and new information is located in each version.
1. The compact fluorescent bulb has become the standard bulb for household lamps. Until recently, most people used incandescent bulbs in their lamps. Heating a tungsten filament until it glows, throwing off light, is how this type of bulb operates. Unfortunately, approximately 90% of the energy used to produce the light is wasted by heating the filament.
- 2. The compact fluorescent bulb has become the standard bulb for household lamps. Until recently, most lamps used incandescent bulbs. This type of bulb operates by heating a tungsten filament until it glows, throwing off light. Unfortunately, heating the filament wastes approximately 90% of the energy used to produce the light.
The second version flows better because it follows the known-to-new strategy. In the second paragraph, notice how “household lamps” appears in the “new” position (the end of the sentence), and in the next sentence, “most lamps” appears in the “known” position (or beginning of the sentence). Similarly, “incandescent bulbs” appears for the first time in the “new” position, and then “this type of bulb” appears in the “known” position of the next sentence, and so on.
In this example, the new information in one sentence appeared in the known position of the very next sentence, but that isn’t always the case. Once the new information has been introduced in the later part of a sentence, it becomes known and can occupy the beginning part of any subsequent sentence.
Transitions indicate the logical relationships between ideas—relationships like similarity, contrast, addition, cause and effect, or exemplification. For an in-depth look at how to use transitions effectively, take a look at our transitions handout. For an explanation of the subtle differences between transitional expressions, see our transitions (ESL) handout.
Clear pronoun reference
Flow can be interrupted when pronoun reference is unclear. Pronouns are words like he, she, it, they, which, and this. We use these words to substitute for nouns that have been mentioned earlier. We call these nouns “antecedents.” For example,
- Clear reference: Active listening strategies help you learn. They focus your attention on important lecture content.
It’s clear that “strategies” is the antecedent for “they” because it’s the only noun that comes before the pronoun. When there’s more than one possible antecedent, the choice may be less clear, and the cohesion won’t be as strong. Take a look at the example below.
- Unclear reference: I went by the bookstore earlier and bought some textbooks and notebooks for my classes, but I’m going to have to return them because I bought the wrong ones.
Here, “them” could refer to two antecedents: the textbooks or the notebooks. It’s unclear which of these purchases needs to be returned, so your reader may have to pause to try to figure it out, thus interrupting the flow of the reading experience. Generally, this problem can be fixed by either adding another noun, or rephrasing the sentence. Let’s try both strategies by adding a noun and breaking the sentence in two.
- Clear reference: I went by the bookstore earlier and bought some textbooks and notebooks for my classes. I’m going to have to return the textbooks because I bought the wrong ones.
Now, it is clear what needs to be returned.
A common cause of confusion in a text is the use of “which.” Look at this example:
- Unclear reference: I’ve begun spending more time in the library and have been getting more sleep, which has resulted in an improvement in my test scores.
Does “which” here refer to spending more time in the library, getting more sleep, or both? Again, let’s solve this by splitting it into two sentences and changing our wording:
- Clear reference: I’ve begun spending more of my free time in the library and have been getting more sleep. These habits have resulted in an improvement in my test scores.
Here’s another example of “which” being used in a sentence. In this sentence, “which” only has one antecedent, the roommate’s habit of staying up late, so it is clear why the writer is having difficulties sleeping.
- Clear reference: My new roommate tends to stay up late, which has made it hard for me to get enough sleep.
This/these + summary noun
Another way to clarify the reference of pronouns like “this” or “these” is to add a summary noun. Look at this example:
- The school board put forth a motion to remove the school vending machines, and a motion to move detention to the weekend instead of after school. This created backlash from students and parents.
In the sentence above, “this” is vague, and could be referring to a number of things. It could refer to:
- The removal of vending machines
- The moving of detention
- Both motions
We can make this sentence more clear by adding something called a “summary noun,” like so:
- The school board put forth a motion to remove the school vending machines, and a motion to move detention to the weekend instead of after school. These motions created backlash from students and parents.
By adding “motions,” the sentence can now only refer to both motions, rather than either individually.
Getting to the verb
Academic writers often disguise actions as things, making those things the subject of the sentence.
This change is called “nominalization” (“changing a verb to a noun”). It can be a useful strategy, but it can lead to excessively long subjects, pushing the verb far away from the beginning of the sentence. When there are too many words before the verb, the connection between the verb and the subject may not be clear. Readers may have to look backward in the sentence to find the subject, interrupting the flow of their reading.
Look at this example:
- Student government’s recent decision to increase the rental fee on spaces that student groups reserve in the Union for regular meetings or special events, especially during high demand periods of the semester like homecoming week or the Week of Welcome but not during low-demand periods like midterm or finals week, elicited a response from several groups that were concerned about the potential impact of the change on their budgets.
“Student government’s decision…elicited a response.” There are 50 words before the verb “elicited” in this sentence! Compare this revision:
- Student government recently decided to increase the rental fee on spaces that student groups reserve in the Union for regular meetings or special events, especially during high demand periods of the semester like homecoming week or the Week of Welcome but not during low-demand periods like midterm or finals week. This decision elicited a response from several groups that were concerned about the potential impact of the change on their budgets.
By changing the thing “decision” into the action “decided,” we’ve created a sentence with just two words before the verb, so it’s very clear who did what. We’ve also split the longer sentence into two, keeping the verb “elicited” and adding “this decision.”
Look for nouns that have underlying actions and try turning them into verbs near the beginning of your sentence: decision–>decide; emergence–>emerge; notification–>notify; description–>describe; etc.
Parallel structure means using the same grammatical structure for things that come in sets. The similarity creates a rhythm that helps the writing flow.
- Not parallel: walking, talked, and chewing gum
Parallel: walking, talking, and chewing gum
Not parallel: teenagers…people in their thirties…octogenarians
Parallel: people in their teens…people in their thirties…people in their eighties
Not parallel: To perform at your peak, you will need to get enough sleep each night, read the material and prepare questions before class every day, and be eating nutritious, well-balanced meals.
Parallel: To perform at your peak, you will need to get enough sleep each night, read the material and prepare questions before class every day, and eat nutritious, well-balanced meals.
We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial. We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.
“Pronoun Reference.” Towson University’s Online Writing Support, Towson University, webapps.towson.edu/ows/proref.htm.
Ruszkiewicz, John and Maxine Hairston. The Scott, Foresman Handbook for Writers. Harper Collins, 1991.
Williams, Joseph. Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, 12th ed. Pearson, 2016.
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