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Flow and Cohesion

Our Writing Center gets a lot of students who are concerned about the flow of their writing, but this can mean a lot of different things. When we talk about "flow" we mean cohesion or how ideas and relationships are communicated to readers. Flow can involve the big-picture (how parts of the essay fit together and the way the sequence of these parts affect how readers understand it) and the sentence-level (how the structure of a sentence affects the ways meanings and relationships come across to readers). This page has an overview of ways to think about revising the flow of an essay on both of these levels.

Big-Picture Revision Strategies

Reading Out-Loud

Oftentimes, you can identify places that need some extra attention sharing your writing with a friend, or reading it out loud to yourself. For example, if it's hard to actually say a sentence at a normal conversational pace, this might indicate that there's something you can change about the structure that will make it easier to say (and probably, easier to understand). A few more tips:

  • When you read out-loud, make sure to slow down. If you are talking too fast, you might fill-in gaps or otherwise not notice things you want to change. You also want to give yourself time to process what you're saying as you say it.
  • Have another person read to you. It can be really helpful to hear your writing in another person's voice. This might help you hear your writing in a different way than when you read silently in your head.
    • If there's nobody around, there are also many computer programs that can convert text to speech and read to you, including Microsoft Word.
  • Take notes while you read. While you might want to fix things as you read, if you're worried about flow, it's also good to read your essay all the way through so that you can hear how parts fit together. If you don't want to interrupt your reading, you can take notes by doing things like putting a checkmark in the margins, using a highlighter, or making a list on a separate sheet of paper.

Structure and Sequence

Sometimes issues of flow and cohesion might actually be structural. It's good to reflect on the structure of an essay, the order of the different parts, and how they all fit together. If you want to revise the structure of your essay, consider trying one of the following activities.

Sign-Posting and Transitions

A great way to help readers comprehend the flow of ideas is include things like sign-posts and transitions. A sign-post is basically just language to point out different parts of the essay for readers in order to help them navigate your ideas. For example, strong topic sentences are a good as sign-posts because they tell readers what upcoming paragraphs are going to be about. Transition sentences can help readers understand how the ideas you were just discussing in a previous paragraph relate to what's coming up with the next paragraph. Here are a couple questions that can help you brainstorm sign-posting statements. After you brainstorm, you can then revise these sign-posting sentences so they fit better with your writing.

  • What is the purpose or main idea that you want to get across in a specific paragraph?
    • Try starting a sentence by writing "In this paragraph, I will discuss..." After you complete this sentence, you can then revise it to make it fit better with your writing.
  • How does this paragraph relate to the one that comes immediately after?
    • "In the previous paragraph I discuss [purpose of paragraph 1] and this helps better understand [purpose of paragraph 2] because..."
  • What does this paragraph or idea have to do with the main purpose or argument of the essay?
    • This paragraph supports my argument because..."
  • Are you trying to help readers make a comparison to something you say earlier in your essay?
    • While I discuss [previous idea or concept] above, I will now talk about [new idea or concept] because..."

Revision on the Sentence-Level

Verbs, or Stuff We Do

A sentence seems clear when its important actions are in verbs. Compare these sentences where the actions are in bold and the verbs are UPPERCASE:

  • Because we LACKED data, we could not EVALUATE whether the UN HAD TARGETED funds to areas that most needed assistance.
  • Our lack of data PREVENTED evaluation of UN actions in targeting funds to areas most in need of assistance.

Nominalization

Turning a verb or adjective into a noun is called a “nominalization.” No element of style more characterizes turgid writing, writing that feels abstract, indirect, and difficult, than lots of nominalizations, especially as the subjects of verbs.  

Our request IS that you DO a review of the data.     vs. We REQUEST that you REVIEW the data.    

Verb

Nominalization

Adjective

Nominalization

discover               

  

discovery

careless

 

carelessness

resist

     

resistance

different

 

difference

react  

 

reaction

proficient

 

proficiency

Try this: when editing, underline the actions in your sentences.  Are those actions in the form of verbs?  If not, you might try rewriting your sentences to turn those actions into the main verbs in the sentence.

Active and Passive Verbs

Some critics of style tell us to avoid the passive everywhere because it adds a couple of words and often deletes the agent, the “doer” of the action.  But in fact, the passive is sometimes the better choice.  To choose between the active and passive, you have to answer two questions:

  1. Must your readers know who is responsible for the action?
    • ​​Often, we don’t say who does an action, because we don’t know or readers won’t care.  For example, we naturally choose the passive in these sentences:
      • The president was rumored to have considered resigning.
      • Those who are found guilty can be fined.
      • Valuable records should always be kept in a safe.
    • On the other hand, this sentence seems vague or less specific because who does the action matters:
      • Because the test was not done, the flaw was not corrected.
  2. Would the active or passive verb help your readers move more smoothly from one sentence to the next?
    • We depend on the beginning of a sentence to give us a context of what we know before we follow the sentence to read what’s new.  A sentence confuses us when it opens with information that is new and unexpected. In the following sentences, the passive verb is in bold and new information is in italics.
      • The weight given to industrial competitiveness as opposed to the value we attach to liberal arts will determine our decision.  
    • In this sentence, notice how the passive verb phrase sets up the new information:
      • Our decision will be determined by the weight we give to industrial competitiveness as opposed to the value we attach to the liberal arts.

Try this:  We need to find our passive verbs before we can evaluate whether or not to change them.  While you’re editing, try underlining all the “to be” verbs, since these are often paired with other verbs to make passive constructions.  The verbs you’re looking for are: am, are, is, was, were, be, become, became.  Once you’ve identified these verbs, check to see if they are necessary, or if the sentence would be clearer or stronger without them.  Example:  “There is one explanation in the story…” vs “The story explains…”

Cohesion

Writing is more coherent when readers are able to make connections across sentences and paragraphs. On the sentence level, this can include when the last few words of one set up information that appears in the first few words of the next.  That’s what gives us our experience of flow.

  1. Begin sentences with information familiar to your readers.  Readers get that information from two sources:  first, they remember words from the sentence they just read.  Second, readers bring to a sentence a general knowledge of its subject.  In a paper on black holes, for example, readers would find references to “astronomers”  familiar, even without prior mention.
  2. End sentences with information that readers cannot anticipate.  Readers prefer to read what’s easy before what’s hard, and what’s familiar and simple is easier to understand that what’ new and complex.  

Compare these two passages:

Consistent ideas toward the beginnings of sentences, especially in their subjects, help readers understand what a passage is generally about.  A sense of coherence arises when a sequence of topics comprises a narrow set of related ideas.  But the context of each sentence is lost by seemingly random shifts of topics.  Unfocused, even disorganized paragraphs result when that happens.

Readers understand what a passage is generally about when they see consistent ideas toward the beginnings of sentences, especially in their subjects.  They feel a passage is coherent when they read a sequence of topics that focuses on a narrow set of related ideas.  But when topics seem to shift randomly, readers lose the context of each sentence.  When that happens, they feel they are reading paragraphs that are unfocused and even disorganized.

 

Try this: While editing, check for these words: this, these, that, those, another, such, second, or more. Writers often refer to something in a previous sentence with these kinds of words. When you use any of those signals, try to put them at or close to the beginning of the sentence that you use them in.

Concision

Here are some tips to help your writing become more precise and cut out extra words.

  1. Delete meaningless words. Some words are verbal tics that we use unconsciously:

    kind of

    actually

    particular

    really

    certain

    various

    virtually

    individual

    basically

    generally

    given

    practically

  2. Delete doubled words. Most of these paired words are redundant:

    full and complete

    hope and trust

    any and all

    true and accurate

    each and every

    basic and fundamental

    hopes and desires

    first and foremost

    various and sundry

  3. Delete what readers can infer.  This can include redundant categories like “period of time,” “pink in color,” or “shiny in appearance.
  4. Replace a phrase with a word. This one may be difficult, but the best way is to look at a “wordy” passage, and see if some of the longer phrases can be shortened or replaced with synonyms.  Look at these sentences:


    As you carefully read what you have written to improve wording and catch errors of spelling and punctuation, the thing to do before anything else is to see whether you could use sequences of subjects and verbs instead of the same ideas expressed in nouns.


    As you edit, first replace nominalizations with clauses.

  5. Change negatives to affirmatives.  When you express an idea in the negative form, it requires an extra word, since “same” = “not different.”  If you want to emphasize the negative, do not translate it!

    not different     

    similar

    not many

    few

    not the same

    different

    not often

    rarely

    not allow

    prevent

    not stop

    continue

    not notice

    overlook

    not include

    omit

  6. Can you make sense of the negatives in this sentence?

Except when you have failed to submit applications without documentation, benefits will not be denied.

This handout contains excerpts from Joseph M. Williams' Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace (New York: Longman, 2000).