What is flow?

Good flow helps your reader move smoothly from one sentence to another, and from one paragraph to another. When writing flows, it’s easy to understand.  

Writing has good flow when:

  • the reader can follow the direction of the writing
  • the logic of the writing is obvious and ideas build on each other
  • the sentences work together to create a natural and effective rhythm

You might encounter a number of problems that disrupt your flow.

Problem: The reader has trouble following the order or direction of your writing.

Solution: Signposting

Signposting predicts the structure and organization of your writing so your audience knows what’s coming.

How to signpost:

  • Explicitly outline your structure or focus

This research examines the role of …………

Understanding the link between x and y will illustrate……..

Once x has been established, the research will then demonstrate………………

  • Use transition words to indicate the direction of your thoughts

In the early 20th century, M. glyptostroboides was known to biologists only through fossil samples. Consequently, it was believed to be extinct. In 1948, however, a Chinese forestry official named Zhan Wang discovered a living specimen in Hubei province.

Tip: see our handout on transition words for more examples and options.

Problem: The reader can’t understand the logic of how you move from one sentence to the next.

Solution: Make relationships between sentences explicit and obvious. Each sentence should build upon the preceding one.

How to make ideas build on each other:

  • Draw on key words or concepts from the previous sentence. Sometimes you can use the exact same word, and sometimes you can use a different word that refers to the same subject.

The dawn redwood grows quickly and can reach 35 m within fifty years, with the trunk reaching as much as 1 m in diameter in the same time span.  The oldest and largest members of the species can be over 50 m tall. Dawn redwoods form distinctive “armpits” where each branch meets the trunk, and they will develop twisted boles that give the trunk a deeply rippled contour.

  • Explain terms your audience won’t know

A survey of the ice pack off the SW coast of Baffin Island found a newly-formed polynya (open area of water surrounded by sea ice) which was navigable for smaller fishing vessels.  

Problem: The writing sounds choppy or monotonous.

Solution: Improve the cadence of your writing.

Cadence is the way your writing sounds. It refers to the way the rhythm of the words drives the reader forward or gives them a chance to pause and reflect. The cadence of your writing should reflect the rise-and-fall of natural speech.

How to improve cadence:

  • Vary sentence length and structure

Read the following passage out loud and listen to the choppy, monotonous rhythm. All the sentences are short and have the same structure.

San Francisco introduced rent control twelve years ago. Today, the number of rental units is 6% lower. Rents have increased by 5.1%. Only wealthy families can afford to move into the city. This contributes to higher levels of income equality. In short, rent control has fueled gentrification.

Now read the next passage aloud to hear how much smoother it is. It has all the same information, but the sentence length and structure vary. Notice how the long and short sentences work together to create a pleasing rhythm. A short, simple sentence at the end reinforces the main idea.

Twelve years after the introduction of the new policy, the number of rental units in San Francisco had gone down by 6%. Rents themselves had actually increased by 5.1%. Only the wealthy could afford to move into the city, which contributed to higher levels of income inequality. In short, rent control had fueled gentrification.

Tip: Too many long sentences are just as problematic as too many short ones.

Sample paragraph with good flow

The following paragraph shows the various tools you can use to create good flow.

The controversy over rent control is resurfacing in New York City as the current regulations are set to expire in five months. One group that favours rent control is the Community Service Society of New York (CSSNY), who maintain that controls are good for both tenants and landlords. Recently, the social service group released a report dispelling several “myths” about rent control in order to convince policy makers to maintain current regulations (Wiltz, 2018). First, they say that rent control does not limit housing stock in the city. Second, they assert that, contrary to popular belief, rent control does not discourage people from moving into smaller units over time. Most people, they claim, live in highly crowded conditions if they have a rent controlled apartment. Finally, CSSNY maintains that rent control does not harm small landlords, because small landlords typically do not own buildings with rent regulated units. In their opinion, these three myths suggest that rent controls are good for both tenants and landlords. Parts of their argument, however, are troubling. The evidence CSSNY offers is mainly anecdotal rather than data-driven. In addition, the pro-landlord Rent Stabilization Association has challenged the idea that landlords are doing well under the current policy, and they offered statistics that refute what the CSSNY claims. With so many conflicting interests and contradictory information, it can be hard to determine the true value and cost of rent control to different stakeholders.