This post was written by Sydney Nicholson, a second-year master’s student in the English Department.
Have you ever wondered what it takes to make an essay “flow”? In my time as a writing center tutor, I’ve noticed that this is one of the most common questions our clients ask. It is my hope that this blog post will not only provide some clarity on what writers mean when they talk about flow but also provide you with a few tips and tricks that you can use to address this concern.
When we talk about flow, what we are really asking is whether the individual ideas in our essay come together to create a coherent whole. In other words, we want to know if our ideas “hang together” in a way that makes logical sense to the reader. In order to address our concerns about flow, it can be helpful to break this question down further and ask:
- Does my essay have one clear goal?
- Does each sentence in my paragraph support the point I want to make in that paragraph?
- Does the paragraph that expresses those ideas support the point I am making in my essay as a whole?
Since you are familiar with the subject you are writing about, it can be challenging to address the flow of your essay. When you read through your essay, your brain knows why you are making each of your points and why those points are connected. Unfortunately, because those connections are apparent to you, you can forget to explain those connections to your reader. Effective writers use a number of tools to see their paper with new eyes and put themselves in the reader’s shoes. Here are five of my favorites:
- Think of your thesis as a kind of itinerary for your paper
Tour guides give their clients an itinerary that tells them where the tour will end and what they will see along the way. An effective thesis is like an itinerary; it not only tells the reader what you are going to say but it also gives the reader a sense of how you are going to arrive at that conclusion. When you write a thesis that tells the writer how you will arrive at your end goal, you become a guide for your reader. You prepare them for each of your main topics so that they aren’t surprised or caught off guard when they come to a new section of your paper. Just as no one wants their tour guide to take them to The Haunted Mansion when they were expecting to visit Splash Mountain, no one wants to be caught off guard by a paper that took a turn they didn’t expect!
Here is an example of a thesis that only tells the reader where a paper will go: This paper argues that John Williams was inspired by Gustav Holst’s orchestral suit The Planets.
Here is an example of a thesis that tells the reader where the paper will go AND how the author will get there: This paper argues that John Williams was inspired by Gustav Holst’s orchestral suit The Planets by comparing the tonal patterns in “Mars: The Bringer of War” to the Imperial March.
- Write topic sentences that are “mini-theses”
Pay particular attention to the first sentence of each of your paragraphs. These sentences are key to guiding your reading through your ideas and they can make or break the flow of your essay. When you write a topic sentence, you want it to do three things:
- Tell the writer what they will know after reading that paragraph
- Explain how that paragraph is related to the one that came before it
- Use key words from the prompt to reassure your reader that this paragraph is responding to the central question of the paper
Here’s an example topic sentence: In addition to using religion as an active tool against nature, the four survivors also utilized religion to wield power over their inner conscience.
This topic sentence uses the key words “religion” and “power” to prove that this paragraph relates back to the essay prompt which asked the writer to explain how Vasco da Gama and his crew used religion as a tool of power in the New World. Its first phrase briefly sums up the main idea of the previous paragraph and explains that this paragraph provides an additional example of how the four survivors used religious as a tool of power. Finally, the topic sentence clearly tells the reader what this paragraph is about when it states that four survivors utilized religion to wield power over their inner conscience.
- Use a graphing activity to see how your sentences relate to one another
In an essay that has a coherent flow, each paragraph will have one central point. Within that paragraph, the individual sentences will work together to develop that idea. To see whether your sentences are working together to develop one concept, use this graphing activity. Here’s how it works:
- Copy and paste your paragraph onto a blank page
- Put each sentence on its own line.
- Read through your paragraph sentence by sentence
- When you see a sentence that further explains the sentence that came before it, press tab and indent it. When you see a sentence that isn’t connected to the idea that came before it, do not indent that sentence at all.
In a paragraph where all of the sentences hang together to form a coherent whole, you should notice that each sentence is indented a bit further than the last one. Here’s an example of a graphed paragraph from an advertisement analysis essay:
The last sentence in your paragraph should “zoom out” and restate the main claim of the paragraph. Thus, it should be similar to your topic sentence. You can represent this similarity by keeping your concluding sentence flush to the left edge of the page.
- Never assume that your reader will understand why you are connecting two thoughts together without your help.
If you make your reader guess why you include a quote or a particular piece of information they might guess incorrectly. You are the expert on this topic and it is your job to show the reader why the quote that you include or that really interesting piece of information about the Trojan Horse is actually connected to your main topic about the way that technology can become a tool for deception.
- Read your paper aloud to a friend or schedule an appointment at the UWC:
Reading your paper out loud to a friend or writing consultant is a great way to make sure that the order of your essay makes sense to someone who isn’t familiar with your topic. If you would like to make an appointment at the Baylor University Writing Center to work on the flow of your essay, please come visit us on the second floor of the Moody Library or make an appointment online at www.baylor.mywconline.com