Five Tips to Make Your Essay “Flow”

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Photo by “Maksym Yymchyk” on Unsplash.

This post was written by Sydney Nicholson, a second-year master’s student in the English Department.

Dear writer,

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:

  1. 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.

  1. 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:

  1. Tell the writer what they will know after reading that paragraph
  2. Explain how that paragraph is related to the one that came before it
  3. 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.

  1. Use a graphing activity to see how your sentences relate to one another

Photo by “Andre Taissin” on Unsplash.

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:

  1. Copy and paste your paragraph onto a blank page
  2. Put each sentence on its own line.
  3. Read through your paragraph sentence by sentence
  4. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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

 

Journaling and the Discipline of Creativity

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Or, What Journaling Taught Me, and How You can Start

Photo by “lilartsy” on Unsplash.

This post was written by Justice Flint, a second-year master’s student in the English Department.

I am a semi-obsessive journaler. The habit began slowly, almost imperceptibly, in the nebulous fog of my early teen years, without a clear purpose or intent. At the time, I had no inkling that what I was doing would be of any academic benefit to me, and even the personal benefits seemed uncertain, beyond the fact that having thorough records enabled me to win family disagreements and solidify my own sense of memory. However, with the benefit of 11 years of hindsight, I can now see how journaling has profoundly impacted my ability to be a successful writer—in college, in grad school, and in life.

Looking at my written evidence, the practice seems to have grown out of my compulsion to make notes in a pocket calendar. By the time I was 15, I was in the habit of making daily entries in a leather-bound journal book (the classiest one I could find at Walmart). Once I began, I pressured myself not to stop. I knew writing “when I felt like it” would easily devolve into going weeks without writing and then despairing of starting an entry at all because I felt like too much preliminary contextual information would be necessary to explain any events. Slowly, I developed the discipline of forcing myself to write something—anything!—every. single. day. Even if that thing was just a sentence saying how I didn’t have anything to say, or that I was too tired to write. Driven by my innate perfectionism, I soon adopted the mental attitude of “chaining myself to my desk” (or my bed, where I preferred to write) every day until I had something on the page. A surprising number of times when I thought I had nothing to say, I’d look up from my journal an hour later and find I’d filled a whole page. These unexpected outpourings of thought weren’t necessarily worthwhile reading later, but they offered catharsis in the moment, and demonstrated the power of having a creative practice that functioned independently of my subjective feelings of inspiration. Below are just a few of the lessons journaling has taught me:

How to face the blank page:
By the time I began college, I quickly realized that I was not so intimidated by a blank Word document as I otherwise might have been, thanks to journaling. I knew how to sit down and begin writing, regardless of how inspired I was feeling or how large the task seemed. I knew through long practice that just beginning was half the battle, and that direction and purpose could be found later, once I had some material on the page to look over

How to experiment with vocabulary:
At some point, I began to consciously treat my journal as a space to stretch my vocabulary, writing with a thesaurus at hand to help me find new and creative ways to describe my experiences, observations, and ideas. I had an innate aversion to using the same terms more than once in an entry, or in two entries close together, and this led me to reach for innovation and nuance in my writing. I was aware at the time that I may not have always been using words correctly, especially if they were ones I had only seen in the thesaurus and not heard in context, but I did my best, and in retrospect, I can see that I largely succeeded. I have little doubt that my private experimentation with words helped my ability to be comfortable in assuming the level of formal diction required in college essays.

How to imagine an audience:
Journaling showed me the importance of writing with a reader in mind, even if such a practice felt especially vain or silly in the context of a journal. Over time, I developed the habit of generally approaching journaling like I was writing a novel, imagining a reader who was unfamiliar with the settings and characters in my life and using the opportunity to weave in descriptive language to paint the best picture I could. This tied in well with my low-key mission to gain more vocabulary dexterity; I often spent an embarrassing amount of time flipping through the thesaurus to find the perfect words to describe events or people that were meaningful to me.

How to play around with genre and tone:
Unconstrained by the strictures of writing a cohesive work for publication, I knew I could change genre and tone as the mood took me. At times I consciously devoted a day’s entry to being a “reflective essay” on my thoughts about some abstract idea, rather than describe anything that happened that day. Other times, I slipped into movie review mode; even now, I find it interesting to look back on my initial thoughts concerning films that have since become favorites. I was able to do these things without fear of a poor grade or of incorrect structure; after all, no one would read it but me. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this self-aware shifting of genre would serve me well in college, as I found it fairly intuitive to adjust my work for different assignments. Journaling, I found, was an excellent playground to imitate the writing styles I saw elsewhere. Even if my own content was lacking in polish or popular interest, the mental motions of working in these different frameworks built a solid cognitive muscle that I was later able to employ to better use as my understanding of good writing improved.

Though I began journaling independent of any idea that it would improve my academic life or even my personal prowess with words, I would now recommend the practice for both of those reasons, as well as for its psychological benefits (about which an entirely separate blog post could be written). For those who may want to start journaling but feel too busy or don’t know how, I offer the following advice:

Start small:
My own descent into the madness of becoming a compulsive journaler began innocently enough, with daily notes in a pocket calendar. If the idea of having to write a mini essay every day intimidates you, forget about your mental image of writing eloquent sentences in a large blank book. If you already have a day planner, try shifting from only marking down plans to noting intriguing or significant incidents after the fact. Filling out short notes like “Hung out with [friend]” or “Watched [insert movie name]” only takes 5 minutes before bed, and you may find it leads to the desire to elaborate more (in which case, you’ll eventually need a bigger book to write in). Even if you never become a prolific writer, the mere habit of recording a few reflective daily sentences primes your mind to more readily express ideas via writing, a skill which will assist you in any school or professional assignment.

Don’t worry about being good, but always strive to be better:
Most of your journal entries will be, quite frankly, inane and ill-constructed. Let’s face it, those words also describe many of our experiences of daily life, and it’s only natural that our attempts to write about our lives will also lack intrigue and structure. Embrace this, but also work towards improvement. One mark of a good writer is someone who can make the mundane remarkable through their descriptions. As a low-pressure exercise, occasionally think about ways to describe ordinary events in your life with the detail and dimension of a novelist. Not only will this challenge you to find angles of interest on things that may seem unremarkable, a skill which will serve you well when faced with a boring essay assignment, but it will also give you opportunity to expand your repertoire of descriptive words not necessarily used in common conversation, which will develop your skill in expression generally.

Another useful occasional exercise is creating a sense of “completeness” in your individual entries. One way to do this is to pick a subject that is already on your mind and adopt a “reflection essay” approach to exploring it—opening with an explanation of what the concept is and why it matters to you, moving through supporting points of experience or knowledge you have pertaining to the subject, and finishing with a concluding opinion (or set of opinions) informed by the exploration you have just done. Think of your entry as a blog post or op-ed, if that helps. The point is to practice taking fragmentary thoughts or experiences and creating a piece that connects them, showing the thorough development of a single theme. This type of writing is extremely helpful for improving your personal reflection habits, but it also trains you for brainstorming for assignments and for thinking in terms of polished, self-contained work.

Write about what interests you:
While it is good practice to treat journaling as a “writing gym” on occasion, don’t feel guilty about also treating it as a “writing playground.” Both approaches involve exercise; the important thing is to write regularly. Doing so will be easier if you don’t feel beholden to some invisible directive to write only about “what is important” in your life or to always consciously “have a goal” in mind when writing. Use things you enjoy or find meaningful as the raw material to facilitate your writing experiments; if you do so, you will have more fun in the process than if you feel duty-bound to write an autobiography or to explain life realities that drain you.

Journaling is an excellent way to develop your own ability to generate, shape, and convey ideas, and it simultaneously provides a record of where you’ve been and how you’ve developed. Regardless of topic or approach, you will look back at your writing later and likely find much of it embarrassing or pointless. This is normal. Much of the point lies in the practice, not the outcome.

On the other hand, you may surprise yourself. The ramblings you write today may reflect an interest that becomes a professional pursuit a decade later. Even if they do not, time spent writing privately is essential preparation for fluency in writing “publicly,” for professors, bosses, and colleagues. It can even help you generate a blog post. 😉