Do people tell you that your writing is choppy or difficult to follow? Do they say it doesn't flow?
Or maybe you've noticed that your team's writing doesn't flow.
Good flow in writing is method, not magic. When writing doesn't flow, it's missing certain elements that help to guide and focus readers. Good flow comes from using those elements in your writing.
Use a combination of the elements below, or encourage your team of writers to use them. Then notice those complaints about "lack of flow" disappear, and watch for an improvement in readers' responses.
1. Transitional words and phrases. Transitional expressions such as "also," "in comparison," and "as a result" help guide readers down the path your ideas take. Think of such expressions as signposts pointing readers in the right direction, especially when your message changes course slightly. These expressions are essential in speeches and presentations, where the audience needs cues to help them follow your ideas. Transitional expressions I use often are "however," "in contrast," and "for example."
2. Bullets points and enumerated lists. Lists of like things (such as steps, benefits, reasons, and requirements) help readers quickly recognize similar content. For instance, a list of 20 executives and their titles is much easier to follow than a paragraph of 20 execs' names and accompanying titles. Also, when you use lists, you do not have to work hard to show relationships between ideas. You can leave out transitional expressions such as "First of all," "Secondly," etc.
Caution: Be sure to structure every item in your list the same way (for instance, all sentences, all noun phrases, or all items starting with action verbs), or your readers will have to work to find similarities.
3. Headings. Without headings, readers have to figure out the relationships between the various parts of your message. With headings, readers can scan your content quickly, recognizing the flow of ideas. Specific headings, such as "Benefits: Less Cost, Greater Efficiency" and "Proposed Solution: Centralize the Training Function," give readers instant information. They do more to guide readers than general headings such as "Benefits" and "Proposed Solution."
4. Answers to readers' questions. Readers are looking for answers to their questions. Before you write, think about what your readers want to know. Then provide that information in the order they are likely to want it, so it flows to meet their needs. For instance, if you are instituting a change, readers' first questions are likely to be:
• What is the change?
• Why is it being made?
• When does it go into effect?
Writers often want to give background first. But the first thing your readers want is the main point of your message, along with the answers to their burning questions.
5. One purpose per message. Readers get lost in communications that pull them in different directions. Whenever possible, have just one purpose in writing and one focus. For example, if you are inviting vendors to participate in an information fair, do not mention other events or other ways to get involved. If you are announcing a change, do not bring up other changes, and do not thank the team that is implementing the change. The other changes, as well as the thank-you, will be the focus of separate future messages.
6. One idea per paragraph. If you pack a paragraph with more than one idea, readers will have difficulty following your flow because of the competing information. In an email announcing a presentation, for example, use three separate paragraphs to communicate the presentation topic; the date, time, and place of the event; and the presenter's brief bio. Headings will help the information stand out.
7. One idea per sentence. A sentence with more than one idea is a sentence competing with itself. The two or three ideas in such a sentence are competing for the readers' attention. Rather than having an easy time following the flow of the sentence, readers don't know where to focus. Even a short sentence like this one pulls its readers in two directions: "Thank you for your help and see you next week at the conference."
8. Complete sentences. Sentence fragments create work for readers, who have to fill in the missing words to follow the flow. The fragment "Got to see the latest design!" can mean the writer got to see the design or the reader ought to see it. The incomplete question "Payment due next week?" can raise many questions for readers.
9. Varied sentence length. Short, concise sentences are easy for readers to follow. However, a parade of very short sentences may come across as disjointed. Varying the length of your sentences will contribute to a smooth flow. The sentences in the paragraph just above are 9, 18, 24, and 13 words long. The previous paragraph has sentences of 13, 15, 19, and 26 words. Try to keep all sentences shorter than 35 words, so readers can follow them easily, and vary the length for smooth flow.
10. Varied sentence structure. Simple subject-verb-object sentences make the readers' job easier. (The sentence you just read is an example.) But they may become monotonous and cause readers to lose focus. Varying your sentence structure means occasionally breaking out of the mold of simple sentences. Try these sentence variations:
• Use a dependent clause followed by the main clause:
"If you need help, call Marcia or Devon."
• Use a main clause followed by a dependent clause:
"I will call you next week after I talk with the client."
• Start with a verb phrase:
"To find the solution, click this link."
• Start with a prepositional phrase or phrases:
"By the way, her manager agrees."
"In the minutes of the meeting, he listed the action steps."
• Combine two short sentences into a compound sentence:
"I called Dr. Mann, and we discussed the retreat agenda."
Tip: Read your email, newsletter article, or report aloud. If it sounds singsongy, as though you are reading a rhyming poem, you need to increase your sentence variety. Also, if you notice the same phrase or word repeating at the beginning of sentences, vary your sentence structure to reduce that repetition. For instance, these three 8-word sentences are too repetitive:
I appreciated your feedback on my first draft. I was able to apply all your suggestions. I have attached a revision for your review.
Thank you for your feedback on my first draft. I was able to apply all your suggestions, and I have attached a revision for your review.
Would you or a team member like to tune up your business writing? Try my new online self-study course Business Writing Tune-Up.
If you have tips on improving the flow of writing, please share them.