A sense of flow is key to good writing; it ensures a smooth reading experience. This can be achieved through careful attention to the ordering and linking of information. During the drafting process, you’ll sequence ideas at high levels — chapters and sections. You’ll continue this process of ordering when you’re structuring your paragraphs. But flow can be built into sentences too – within and between them – ensuring that your sentences link together well, giving your writing a strong forwards momentum.
You can order the information in your sentences by sequencing it from known to new. Your reader will process what they already know more quickly than anything new, so if you are introducing a topic, position it at the end of a sentence. Once the topic is known to the reader, you can place it up front.
Look at this example:
The consequences of dumping plastic waste in the environment are increasingly apparent. Microplastics are made of plastic waste that has broken down into fragments of less than 5mm in length. They have been found in the soil, the ocean, and the air of our planet. In a recent study, human blood was found to contain microplastics.
The ordering of the sentences isn’t wrong, but the order of information within the sentences might slow the reader’s perception. The idea of plastic waste as pollution is introduced, but is followed by an abrupt shift to microplastics, after which we learn of the results of a recent study. Improve the flow by paying attention to where any new information is placed:
The consequences of dumping plastic waste in the environment have become increasingly apparent. Fragments measuring less than 5mm are referred to as microplastics. These can now be found throughout our planet: in the soil, the ocean, the air and, as a recent study reveals, in human blood.
The difference isn’t huge, but the effect is significant. It’s much easier to follow.
Using parallel structures
Flow can be improved with attention to parallel structures: that is, using the same grammatical patterns for things that come in sets. The above example demonstrates this, listing the physical environments in which microplastics have been found – ‘in the soil, the ocean, the air’ – before moving to the human body – ‘and, as a recent study reveals, in human blood’.
Written without the parallel structure, the text loses its emphasis as well as its rhythm:
Microplastics have been found in the soil, and it is well-known that the ocean contains significant deposits, as does the air. In a recent study, human traces of microplastics were found in human blood.
It’s not incorrect, but it doesn’t flow as well.
We commonly use pronouns as substitutes for nouns mentioned earlier in a text. When pronoun references (he, she, it, that, they, which, this) aren’t clear, the resulting ambiguity can interrupt flow. If there is only one noun mentioned in the sentence before, there is no opportunity for misunderstanding. For example:
Sans serif fonts are easy to read. They are simpler and cleaner than serif fonts.
It’s clear that ‘they’ in this instance refers to sans serif fonts, the only noun in the preceding sentence. But in this example, ambiguous pronouns muddle the meaning:
James told Vikram that no one would cheat him.
It’s unclear whether ‘him’ refers to Vikram or James. Instead, for perfect clarity, I could write:
James said to Vikram, ‘No one will cheat me.’
Sometimes the pronoun isn’t wrong – the meaning is clear – but restating the noun phrase improves the flow. For example, in the following, we know what ‘which’ refers to:
Exports of plastic waste from the UK increased from 12,000 tonnes in 2016 to 210,000 tonnes in 2020 (Jones, 2021), which illustrates that a radical new approach is required to how we use and dispose of plastic.
However, the sentence is clearer if you insert the phrase ‘This increase’:
Exports of plastic waste from the UK increased from 12,000 tonnes in 2016 to 210,000 tonnes in 2020 (Jones, 2021). This increase illustrates the need for a radical new approach to how we use and dispose of plastic.
These indicate the relationships between your ideas. Use them to:
- add (furthermore, moreover, also);
- oppose (but, however, though, nevertheless);
- conclude (therefore, so, consequently);
- exemplify (for example, for instance, to illustrate);
- intensify (in fact, indeed);
- sequence (first, second, third, finally).
Be careful how and where you use transitional expressions. In the following example, two are used, but one impedes the flow:
The findings emerged from what was a preliminary study. Also, some results may reflect short-term exposure to plastics. Nevertheless, the study illustrates a direct relationship between plastic pollution and the human body.
Using ‘also’ doesn’t work because the sentence about short-term exposure is an elaboration on the information given, rather than an addition. But using ‘nevertheless’ helps the flow because it asserts the relevance of what is known. The edited example keeps ‘nevertheless’ but uses ‘and’ instead of ‘also’:
The findings emerged from what was a preliminary study, and some results may reflect short-term exposure to plastics. Nevertheless, the research illustrates a direct relationship between plastic pollution and the human body.
Do remember to read your work out loud after you’ve edited it. You’ll hear if your sentences read smoothly. When your writing flows, your reader can easily absorb your ideas and understand what you’re trying to communicate.
 All examples in this piece were written by the author.
12 May 2022
Finessing an argument and spotting typos need different mindsets. Whether you’re writing an essay or a PhD, you need to be the editor as well as the author.
Transition words and phrases help your work to flow smoothly from one paragraph to the next. They act as a helpful signpost.
If your essay is peppered with comments such as ‘Who?’ or ‘What?’, you may have made a common grammatical error. To check, look for the pronouns.