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The Writing Center

Go with the Flow at the Owens Writing Center

by Russ Sprinkle, Ph.D.

As a mentor in the Owens Writing Center, I meet every day with students who ask me to check their essays for what they refer to as "flow." When I ask students what they mean by "flow," they often have a difficult time explaining it to me. "Flow" is a word that many students seem to use, but not many actually know how to define it. So what is "flow," exactly?

Essentially, flow is the presence of two important features of writing: (1) a clear organizing principle and (2) effective transition devices. A clear organizing principle simply means that your ideas follow in a logical order. One common organizing principle is chronological order. We use this organizing principle all the time when we tell a story: "I met my friends in the café. We studied for an hour. We went to class and took a test." The principle that holds these ideas together is based on the passage of time. It's pretty easy to achieve flow when you're simply telling a story, right? But what about when you need to write a research essay?

Research essays usually require a slightly more sophisticated organizing principle. So you may want to organize your ideas from least important to most important or from general to specific. If your intended audience doesn't know much about your topic, you may want to start with familiar information first and then present unfamiliar information later in your essay. If your essay is technical or especially complex, you can present simple ideas first and then move to more complex ideas later. Organizing principles add cohesion to your writing and help readers understand how your ideas work together. So when you're trying to achieve "flow," the most important thing to remember about organizing principles is that you use one!

Now, let's discuss the second element of "flow": transitions.

Transitions help readers move smoothly from sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph. To illustrate, let's use the same example I mentioned above: "I met my friends in the café. We studied for an hour. We went to class and took a test." Look what happens when I add a few transition words: "First, I met my friends in the café. Then, we studied for an hour. Finally, we went to class and took a test." See how these little transition words help readers move more smoothly from sentence to sentence? They let readers know exactly how the idea in one sentence relates to the idea in the next sentence, and this is especially important when you want to achieve "flow." Other common transition words include however, furthermore, moreover, thus, consequently, additionally, and therefore.

When you're writing a research essay, your transition devices may be words, phrases, or even complete sentences. And when you combine transition devices with a clear organizing principle, guess what you've got? That's right: flow!

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