One of the sentence-level concerns we encounter most often is “flow.” It is common, on reading your draft, to wonder if each sentence follows clearly from the next. Frustratingly, “flow” can be very subjective, and thus difficult to assess concretely. Some of this owes to the different frames of reference with which you and your reader will approach your text. As the writer, you start with a relatively clear idea of what you mean to say and then break those ideas into sentence-level pieces. On the other hand, your reader does not begin with your ideas already in their head, and so they rely entirely on the sentences you’ve written to piece together an understanding of your points. Ultimately, this difference means that you and your reader may have completely different levels of comprehension when reading the exact same sentences. Because you already grasp the bigger picture that your sentences add up to, you will see your individual sentence as being a meaningful piece of that larger whole. By contrast, it is easy for your reader to feel confused as they move through a series of your sentences, trying to piece together your larger points as they go, without knowing for sure what larger understanding you plan to arrive at. Herein lies the problem: while it’s your job to write in a way that helps your reader understand and follow along, it’s impossible for you to see your own writing the way your reader does. This entry offers one way to check your own work and to ensure your sentences don’t keep your reader from following what you’re saying and improve the Clarity, Grammar, and Usage of your text.
As George Gopen and Judith Swan observe in “The Science of Scientific Writing,” one of the most common issues in under-revised writing has to do with sentences that begin with information that is new and unfamiliar to readers. Generally speaking, readers expect that the beginning of each sentence refers back to information already established; that way, they will “flow” into the new sentence with a sense of understanding what’s happening. It’s only in the later part of a sentence that your reader will be ready to process new, unfamiliar information.
Consider the following example:
Belshazzar appears as a tragic figure in D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916). A group of disloyal priests defect to Cyrus in what the opening titles of Act II call “the greatest treason of all history.” These treacherous clergy are analogized, via juxtaposition with the film’s other vignettes, to the Pharisees, Catherine de’ Medici, and the Suffragettes.
Note the jump from the end of the first sentence to the beginning of the second. The second sentence begins with new information (about a group of priests) without signaling clearly how it relates back to information already established (Belshazzar is a tragic figure in Intolerance). A reader may understandably pause when they get to that second sentence, asking themselves who these priests are and wondering if they missed something in the sentences they’ve already read. A simple way to smooth out the transition in the above excerpt would be to switch the internal order of the second sentence so that it begins with information that connects back to what the author has just established:
Belshazzar appears as a tragic figure in D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916). He falls victim to what the intertitles call “the greatest treason of all history,” in which a group of priests defect to aid Cyrus’s invasion of Babylon. These treacherous clergy are analogized, via juxtaposition with the film’s other vignettes, to the Pharisees, Catherine de’ Medici, and the Suffragettes.
The difference is subtle, but significant: the second sentence now begins with a pronoun, “he,” that readers can easily connect back to the subject of the previous sentence, “Belshazzar.” From there, the sentence discusses the priests in a way that readers can process, because they understand that this is new information they weren’t expected to know about until this very moment. Beginning a sentence with new information interrupts the “flow” for your reader because they assume the first part of each sentence—what Gopen and Swan call the “topic position”—will reference information that’s already been established. Putting new information in the topic position may cause the reader to stop and wonder if they missed something.
With all this in mind, try to address flow issues in your own drafts with the following exercise:
Step 1: Look through a part of your draft and highlight or underline the subject of the sentence (i.e., the noun or thing that is first mentioned).
Step 2: Go through each sentence and check to see if the underlined part is referencing previously established information. Mark any sentence that instead begins with something that would be new and unfamiliar to your reader.
Step 3: Try reordering those sentences so that they begin with something that references previously established information.
This strategy is a good place to start whenever a reader gives you feedback that a certain part of your writing is confusing or unclear. If you found this revision strategy useful see “Is This Sentence Adding Anything? Stress Position Check,” which employs a similar model for unpacking sentence and paragraph stresses.