When conferencing with my students regarding their writing, a common request I hear, (usually after some stammering from the student) is, “I want to make sure that my writing flows.”
I might follow up by asking the student if he is referring to the flow between his sentences, the flow between his paragraphs, or the flow throughout his entire piece of writing. As you can imagine, the student is often met with confusion.
Or perhaps you have heard students in peer review tell their partner, “Your writing flows well,” but when pressed, they can’t seem to provide a response as to where or how.
These students might have a feeling as to which writing flows and which writing doesn’t, but they cannot seem to articulate the how or the why.
And I don’t blame them – it can be a challenge to articulate the “how” or “why” a piece of writing flows. I imagine that for many students, writing flow is a cryptic concept that only innately talented writers can summon.
So, to help our students, let’s better define flow for them and explain why it is an important writing component. Let’s help them understand that there is more than one kind of flow so that the feedback they offer one another in peer editing is more precise and actionable.
What is writing flow and why is it important?
Most students are aware of the importance of flow, even if they cannot pin down a single definition for it. We know this because they are able to use words like “choppy,” “awkward,” and “wordy” to describe writing without being formally taught this vocabulary.
Ever since we were read to as children by our teachers and family members, we were being taught to appreciate the phonic quality of sentences and how they are constructed. For this reason, students can identify writing which lacks flow as difficult or boring to read, and they can sense the distance it creates between the author and reader.
To help them better understand this sense of discomfort that some writing gives them, we can define writing flow in the following terms:
>> “Flow is a word used to describe writing that has logical structure and varied language within and between sentences and paragraphs.”
Having flow implies having comfort as a writer and a mastery of not only the content being written about, but the writing craft itself.
Help Your Students Create a Sense of Flow in Their Writing
So let’s break down the different areas of writing that can contribute to the overall flow of a written piece of work.
Teaching Varied Sentence Structure in Writing
Fragments, run-on sentences, and comma splices are issues that can certainly detract from a sentence’s flow, and they often indicate that a student is having an issue recognizing where a sentence begins and where a sentence ends.
Students can eliminate fragments and run-ons when they have additional practice writing complex sentences using independent clauses and dependent clauses.
When comma splices (the joining of two independent clauses with a comma) occur, students can also benefit from activities that focus on uses of compound sentences and conjunctions.
Sentence combining activities like the ones here included in Deborah Dean’s article from NCTE are a great way to help students vary their sentences.
Creating Flow Between Sentences: Avoiding “Choppiness” and “Wordiness”
Returning to some of the terminologies that I referred to earlier, what do students mean when they describe writing as “choppy?” Usually, this means that the sentences within a passage move at an odd pace.
Choppy writing might be defined by repetitive sentence structure (sometimes sounding “robotic”) which rely on simple sentences. While the writer may have a solid foundation of ideas, she might improve the flow of her writing by experimenting with different sentence structures, conjunctions, and subordinating clauses.
“Wordy” writing usually refers to lengthy and grandiose phrases that clutter meaning and readability. Some students that experiment with their vocabulary (usually a good thing) might end up with writing that has inappropriate word choice, unusual sentence structure, or instances of passive voice.
When this happens, encourage your students to ask themselves during the revision or peer editing process whether their diction, or choice of words, is clumsy or getting in the way of their ideas.
Using Transitions Between Paragraphs
Flow can be achieved at the paragraph level as well. Transition words and phrases are helpful not only for linking sentences together, but also for connecting paragraphs throughout a piece of writing. Depending on your intention, the use of transitions can be used for a variety of purposes.
Structuring Your Paragraphs to Maintain Flow in Writing
Certainly, writing flow can be measured on a broader scale when assessing how paragraphs themselves are structured and organized.
In this sense, successful flow can be determined not only by the selection of ideas and how well each paragraph stays on topic, but also by how paragraphs themselves are ordered.
It’s important to ask, “Do the points in each paragraph successfully build to a unified idea or argument?”
To illustrate, my very own high school English teacher offered me the following tips for embedding flow into a five-paragraph argumentative essay:
> - Your first body paragraph should be the most obvious and logical point of your argument. It should be the most difficult to argue against and the most likely to be at the forefront of a reader’s mind after reading the paper’s introduction.
> - Your second body paragraph should be your argument’s weakest point. This is the point in your paper when your reader is paying the least attention. Particularly if your first point is strong, the weakness of this point has less power when it’s placed in the middle, sandwiched between two strong points.
> - Your third body paragraph should be the strongest, though not necessarily the most obvious point of your argument. This paragraph is delivering the “final punch” of your argument. It should be the most compelling, and it is also a good place to strike a counterargument (before reaffirming your own argument prior to concluding). It should be the point you want to stay in your reader’s mind the most.
Not only the selection of ideas, but how they are ordered can contribute immensely to the overall flow of the writing piece.
A Final, Practical Note on Flow
Establishing flow is one of the most creative aspects of the writing process. Give your students the language and skills to describe and improve this aspect of their writing and tell them to have fun with it! Encourage your students to use it as an opportunity to exercise their voices and to make creative choices in their writing. With just these few tools, some time to practice, and your heartfelt encouragement, your students will soon discover a new aspect of their writing.