Make Your Writing Flow

Make Your Writing Flow:  The Old/New Contract

We often praise good writing for its “flow,” but what does anyone really mean by that?  Well, here’s an example of what it is not

Colonists were divided as to whether they should fight for independence or seek reconciliation with Great Britain.  Most modern Americans do not know that colonists disagreed about what to do with this deteriorating relationship.  Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was a pamphlet that increased the consensus that a fight for independence was inevitable and the better course to take.

While all three of these sentences are about the same topic, each begins in a place that we cannot easily predict from what came before it.  In a word, they do not “flow,” no more than a stream flows when it dries up into a puddle here, a puddle there.  When the first sentence begins with “Colonists,” we might think automatically about 18th-century America, but we could also think about colonists in India, Brazil, or even a future on the moon.  And just when we have figured out that the passage is about the revolutionary war, the second sentence begins with modern Americans who evidently do not recall that the decision to fight for independence was not an automatic response.  Then, as we try to relate the thought of the second sentence to the first, we may not be prepared to zoom in on a detail like the 18th-century writer whose pamphlet galvanized support for a break with Great Britain.

Flow happens when we connect one sentence to the other by paying attention to the beginning and ending of each.  To make a passage flow, try this: Begin with old or familiar information, and end with newer, less familiar, or more complicated information.  The underlined words show the connections from one sentence to the next:

Modern Americans do not often appreciate how colonists disagreed about what to do with the deteriorating relationship between the colonies and Great Britain.  While some colonists argued for independence and certain war, others maintained that reconciliation was called for.  This conflict changed with the publication of Common Sense, in which Thomas Paine demonstrated how the fight for independence was inevitable and better course to take. 

This passage flows.  It begins with what is most familiar to readers—their modern circumstances—and moves toward less familiar or predictable content.  The second sentence begins with what is now “old” information (disagreement about political circumstances) and creates “new” information about each side of the conflict.  The third sentence begins with familiar “old” information—the conflict—and moves toward new information about a writer and a pamphlet that helped resolve it. 

Old (or Familiar)

New

Modern Americans . . .

how colonists disagreed

While some colonists argued . . .

War of independence or reconciliation (conflict)

This conflict

Publication of Common Sense . . .

We call this strategy “the old/new contract” because it fulfills the expectation that readers have of you--that you will help them follow the train of thought by guiding them from that which is familiar toward that which is new, interesting, or exciting. 

 

Editing for Flow 

Since you know what you’re writing about, it’s often hard to see how well you are guiding your reader from one sentence to the next, see if you can circle a theme, idea, or concept in the last half of one sentence and draw a line to another expression of it at the beginning (at least the first half) of the next.  It should look something like this if your prose is flowing well: 

Modern Americans do not often appreciate how colonists disagreed about what to do with the deteriorating relationship between the colonies and Great Britain.  While some colonists argued for independence and certain war, others maintained that reconciliation was called for.  This conflict changed with the publication of Common Sense, in which Thomas Paine demonstrated how the fight for independence was inevitable and better course to take. 

Modern Americans do not often appreciate how colonists disagreed about what to do with the deteriorating relationship between the colonies and Great Britain.  While some colonists argued for independence and certain war, others maintained that reconciliation was the better course.  This conflict shifted significantly with the publication of Common Sense, in which Thomas Paine demonstrated how the fight for independence was the inevitable and better course to take.

If it is difficult or impossible to draw a connection from the back half of one sentence to the front half of the next, perhaps your passage could flow more smoothly by editing to fulfill the old/new contract.  You may know how to edit it from here.  But as always, our Peer Writing Consultants are ready to help you out

 

Extra Editing Exercise

This passage on the cause and symptoms of heart attacks has about as much flow as an unhealthy artery.  Try editing by using the old/new contract. 

Plaque in coronary arteries can impede blood flow to heart muscle.  Fat, cholesterol, and other substances make the plaque.  A heart attack occurs when blood serving the heart muscle is blocked, causing muscle tissue to die.  Pain in the center of the chest that may radiate to the arms, neck, and jaw is a common symptom of a heart attack.  Shortness of breath, fatigue, or an irregular heartbeat are other symptoms.  

A heart attack occurs when blood serving the heart muscle is blocked.  These blockages are caused by a buildup of fat, cholesterol and other substances into a plaque that can prevent blood from reaching the heart muscle and cause tissue death.  As tissue dies, the patient experiences symptoms such as pain in the center of the chest that may radiate to the arms, neck and jaw.  The patient may also complain of shortness of breath, fatigue, or an irregular heartbeat.