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"Flow" usually refers to how a text is organized. At the global level, how do ideas develop or progress from section to section? At the sentence level, do our sentences fit together?

Flow as organization
Flow as language
Flow as a catch-all: What does your audience think of your work?
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One aspect of flow is as it applies to your entire piece of writing. In this way, “flow” considers how effectively your ideas move from one to the next. Our handouts on organization have more detailed information about the flow of ideas, but here are some things to consider:

  • Is your thesis statement presented toward the beginning of the paper? For most writing projects, placing the thesis statement toward the beginning of the paper tells your reader the topic as well as your stance on that topic. Once your reader knows what you’re going to write about, you have greater opportunity to provide reasons and evidence that support your argument. Stating the thesis sooner rather than later is also helpful for you as a writer to organize your thoughts logically, providing a map of sorts for your paper. When this map is followed throughout your body paragraphs, the reader obtains a sense a “flow.” See the Thesis Statement page for more information on writing great thesis statements.
  • Do your topic sentences indicate what each paragraph will be about? Generally, subsequent paragraphs will support the main idea of the thesis. Flow is established when the main idea of each paragraph connects back to the overall main idea, the thesis statement. When the first sentence of each paragraph clearly indicates what the paragraph will be about, the reader can build a map of your paper as they read, and they’ll see that everything is connected and that your ideas move from one to the next in a logical fashion. For example, evidence can be organized from least relevant to most relevant, ending with what you view as the strongest evidence for your stance. (Arguments are often bolstered by addressing counterarguments. The placement of counterarguments is very flexible, but they are often effective after a few supporting evidences are expounded.) See the Topic Sentences page for more information about writing good topic sentences.
  • Do your topic sentences transition from old to new information? Once the overall organization of your paper is in place, and the topic sentences clearly link to the thesis statement, the transitions from each paragraph are the details that contribute to a reader’s feeling of “flow” in your writing. If transitions are abrupt, even a logical progression of ideas can seem disjointed and sometimes nonsensical. See the Transitions page for more details about transitions.

Connecting ideas is a macro issue that contributes to your audience’s perception of flow in your paper. The actual language of your writing is another important aspect that can greatly enhance or hinder how your flow. Here are some things to think about:

  • Is your writing clear? Are there too many hedge words (e.g., perhaps, I think, etc.) or nominalizations (i.e., nouns where you could use a verb or an adjective)? Are the tenses of all the verbs correct? Is the person speaking (i.e., first-person, second-person, third-person pronouns) consistent?
  • Are your sentences varied? Passive or active, long or short, big introductory phrases or extensive modifiers—all these things can work together to create varied and interesting sentences. This variety is more conducive to the reader’s perception of flow—can you imagine reading something that only had sentences made of seven or eight words? The writing would seem elementary at best, and choppy regardless of how sophisticated the word choice was. Interesting sentence structure is a micro-level issue that not many people think about; in fact, it could be considered a “polishing tool,” something you’d pay attention to in your final revisions of a project. See the Sentence Structure and Grammar pages to step up your sentence game .
  • Is your writing wordy? Sometimes we writers start writing, and we keep writing long after we’ve said what we wanted to. But if your reader gets lost in too much detail or an extraneous tangent, their understanding of your paper is interrupted! Boom. Flow gone. So, make sure all your sentences—and the details they contain—are relevant to your topic.
  • Are your topic and writing style appropriate for the assignment and your audience? If your topic has nothing to do with the assignment and is contrary to your audience’s expectations, the flow of your writing is disrupted from the beginning. Similarly, if you’ve written informally for a final research paper, or you’ve written too formally for a personal narrative, the tone of your paper will most likely not align with your audience’s expectations, contributing to a lack of flow. A similar issue happens if the tone of your paper changes throughout the piece. Remember, consistency is key.
  • Do you use appropriate word choice? Using just the right word might not seem like a big deal, but it could make all the difference to your audience’s understanding and, indirectly, the flow of your writing. If the audience is caught up on a specific word, whether it doesn’t make sense or it’s too complicated for their understanding, their progression through your writing is interrupted and the rapport that you’ve established with them is also halted.
  • Does the paper have grammatical factors? Grammar is a sentence-level issue that might not be as important as some of the bigger-picture issues (e.g., thesis statements, organization, etc.). However, too many grammar mistakes—or any at all, depending on your audience—can hinder their reading. This can either make the writing incomprehensible or just break up your ideas so much that your audience can’t understand what you’re trying to say overall.

Students often ask writing tutors variations of the question, “How well does my paper flow?” Upon further investigation, students often describe the root of their concern: they want to know how well the reader likes their paper and subconsciously include many aspects of writing with that question. When you are concerned about flow, are you really just worried about what your reader will think of your writing overall? Or are there specific issues under that catch-all that you’re worried your reader won’t like?

Keep in mind that understanding your audience and the genre in which you’re writing can inform your paper’s sense of flow. For example, if the assignment is to write a research-based discussion paper, but the paper you’ve produced is a thesis-driven argument research paper, your audience will likely experience a sense of dissonance (the opposite of “flow”) from the very beginning of your paper. That un-flowy feeling will only persist throughout the paper, no matter how grammatically correct or varied your sentence structure is. Similarly, if the intended audience is a general audience, but the writing you produce can be understood only by field professionals, your audience will think early on that the paper doesn’t “flow.” As you begin writing, audience and genre are two things you should really consider in order to ensure flow.

The word “Flow” could also be associated with the reaction that a writer hopes their audience will have: writers want their writing to be easy to follow and easily accepted by the audience (of course, if the topic of the paper is something the audience disagrees with, then the content of their paper better be really persuasive, but that might be part of flow, too). In other words, writers want their work to make sense and achieve the goal that they started writing for.

Flow (short)

Are you ready to talk to one of our consultants about flow? If so, this page is full of questions to consider as you prepare for a consultation, but here are some questions that would be helpful to prioritize:

  1. What do I mean when I ask about “flow”? Do I want someone to look at the overall organization or individual transitions between paragraphs, or do I simply want an overall audience reaction?
  2. How does my audience react to my writing (not just the subject or my opinion)? Do they describe it as choppy or hard to understand?