It has been said that writers can be divided into two camps: plungers and planners.
Plungers believe that writing is sourced by inspiration. ‘You either have the talent – or you don’t,’ they insist. For them, the writing process consists of just that, plunging right in and jotting down ideas as easily as compiling a birthday wish list. These writers may re-arrange some paragraphs and scrap a few words in a remarkably brief edit, but most run away from scrutiny of their writing as though it were a nuclear meltdown.
Planners, on the other hand, are nitpickers who plan and plot, and may even write from a pre-established map. These writers (and we tend to agree with them!) believe their craft is sourced by perspiration.
Now whatever group you fall into, you cannot escape the basic rules of good writing. Both the impetuous Plunger and the meticulous Planner have to produce writing that, at the very least, makes sense and follows a logical order of content.
If you Plungers are starting to glaze over at the thought, remember, your aim is to make the lives of your publishers, editors, and most important, readers a little easier. It’s not that we don’t believe in the magic of inspired writing. We just believe it takes a calculated approach to achieve it.
What is logical flow?
I define it as all the aspects of your writing that help the reader move smoothly from one sentence to the next, and one paragraph to another.
To illustrate, imagine that readers should ideally follow your thoughts as effortlessly as cruising down a river through the countryside.
Happily sailing along, readers would hardly find it thrilling if the river unexpectedly cascaded 600 metres down a cliff, abruptly dried up, or if a massive boulder were wedged between its banks. Any of these nasty obstacles would probably make them turn around and go home.
So it is with the flow of your sentences. Readers don’t want bumps, unintended surprises or to feel threatened in any way. They don’t want to follow a train of thought, only for it to lead to a dead-end, or for a new idea to be dumped on them without some warning. Just because your sentences have a literal stop between them and a gap between paragraphs, doesn’t mean that readers want stops and gaps in the flow of logical thinking. They want an enjoyable, stress-free journey.
So how can you achieve logical flow?
There are three main ways:
1. Logical layout of content, addressing one point at a time in a reader-friendly, logical sequence.
2. Apt use of transitions to blend paragraphs together
3. Consistency in the finer points of style, tone, tenses and punctuation.
Logical flow of content and effective transitions tend to go hand in hand, for it is when you attempt to smooth the gaps between paragraphs, using transitional phrases, that incongruent ideas will stick out, and be virtually impossible to connect.
Writer Shaun Fawcett, who runs writing workshops on www.WritingHelp-Central.com, explains in greater detail:
“One of the more common weaknesses I see in day-to-day writing is poor logical flow from one idea or point to the next. This usually takes the form of a bunch of seemingly unrelated phrases thrown together with little or no sense of sequence, continuity, or relativity…. Smooth, orderly and logical transitions from one thought to the other, one sentence to the next, and one paragraph to another are key to creating clear meaning and flow in any document.”
For example, look at this “piece” below:
A restaurant called Sehnsucht for anorexics has opened in Berlin. The restaurant employs a bulimic waitress and an anorexic chef. The restaurant deliberately uses non-food names, such as: Seele (Soul, a cappuccino crème dessert) or Hallo (a lobster bisque).
Berlin has many unusual restaurants.
There are two “blind” restaurants where guests eat in pitch darkness, served by blind waiters.
There is another restaurant where you eat what you’re given, then pay what you think the meal is worth.
[Facts taken from an article in The Weekend Argus (23 October 2004)]
How exciting is that? Can you see that these paragraphs are barely related to each other? Not only are transitions missing, but the flow of the paragraphs is off as well.
As we said above, transitions glue facts and explanation together, and help to keep the reader (who may be quite lazy!) reading. Here are a few examples of transition words and phrases, but remember, there are hundreds more that you could be using.
Examples of transitions:
For example; for instance; in other words; put another way; seems clear from this; simply stated; stated differently; that is; to clarify; to illustrate the point, although; as opposed to; but; conversely; counter to; even so; even though; however; in spite of this; in the meantime; nevertheless; on the contrary; on the other hand; otherwise; sometimes; still; yet; again; another key point; first thing to remember; for this reason; frequently; important to realize; indeed; in fact; key point; most compelling evidence; most important information; must be remembered; on the negative side; on the positive side; point often overlooked; significant that; surprising; surprisingly enough; to emphasize; to point out; to repeat; truly; with this in mind.
Other ways to create transitions are:
•Using a graphic image woven throughout the story, which holds the writing together.
•Inserting colloquial opinion statements/ personal input from the writer. For example: Ending a paragraph with “See what I mean?” or “Right?” or “You may not be far off the mark.” Even interjections like: “Sounds like a tall story to me!” or “Here we go again…!” can be used as transitions.
•Creating anecdotes or scenes to tie paragraphs together.
Let’s have a quick look at how one of our students added transitions, details and a bit of colour to the example on unusual restaurants above, to create an opening more suitable for a magazine article.
Think Germany and you think Bratwurst, sauerkraut and red-cheeked farmers swigging a mug of beer. Think Berlin and Check Point Charlie and the wall between East and West come to mind.
So it’s a surprise that the new trend restaurant in Berlin is Sehnsucht. No traditional stodge served here, it is a restaurant aimed at the Anorexic market (sad that there is an ‘Anorexic market’, isn’t it?).
Sehnsucht employs bulimic waitresses and anorexic chefs to dish up cob salads and dry tuna. If you are into bangers and mash, this is not the place for you. On the menu you will find dishes like ‘Hallo’, a lobster bisque, ‘Goodbye’, a rice cake with vanilla ice-cream – probably the most fattening item in the restaurant. Not one dish lets slip any mention of food, for fear of putting the Anorexics off their cuisine….
Also notice the continuity in tone (slightly humorous), style (colloquial), punctuation, tenses and perspective (“You”) throughout the paragraphs. Put together, these aspects all help to create a sense of continuity in the writing.
Finished your piece? Run through this 8–point Logical Flow checklist:
1.Do my points run sequentially, like a conversation, with effective transitions to link them?
2.Do I completely explore one idea, before moving to the next?
3. Is some information missing before the reader can make sense of my lines?
4.Are my Pronouns and Perspective consistent throughout? (“You”/ “We”/ “He”/ “She”?)
5.Have I used the same level of formality (slang/ colloquial/ formal?) in each paragraph?
6.Is my tone consistent? (Humorous/ Serious/ Sarcastic/ Ironic?)
7.Do my tenses make sense?
8. Are my punctuation marks for dialogue and lists constant throughout?
Next, read your piece aloud to yourself. Listen carefully. Does it flow like a conversation, and make complete sense?
And finally, read your writing out loud to someone else. If your listener looks confused, yawns, or worse, starts to back out of the room, get to work on that flow!
Nichola Meyer is the principal of the International Writers' College