How to make your writing flow as smoothly as hot chocolate

Lorraine Forrest-Turner

Lorraine Forrest-Turner

Even the most compelling subject won’t engage a reader if the writing itself is ‘sticky’. If readers stumble over clunky sentences or need to reread paragraphs, they’ll either skim parts or give up altogether. Writing needs to flow as smoothly as hot chocolate. Which means you need to do the hard work so your reader doesn’t have to.

What is flow in writing?

Flow is that magical thing that makes reading something easy and enjoyable. Sentences drift along nicely. Stuff just makes sense. And we only need to read something once. What’s more, we don’t feel overwhelmed with too much information all at once.

Good flow is almost imperceptible. We don’t notice it in the writing. We just take in each lovely mouthful and get swept along on a wave of warm, creamy deliciousness. Oops. Bit too much hot chocolate analogy there. But you get my point.

How do you make your writing flow smoothly?

Getting our writing to flow smoothly rarely happens with the first draft. It’s a craft that starts with basic building blocks and goes through umpteen designs and constructions before turning into a thing of beauty. (I’m really into metaphors today.)

Some writers do manage to pull off pretty spectacular first drafts – especially if they’re writing about a familiar subject. But most of us need to go through stages. Which is absolutely fine. Good things come to those who… work hard.

If you want instant hot chocolate, pour some hot water onto the contents of a packet. But it will never taste as good as real chocolate on a stick melting slowly in a glass of hot milk on a wet day in Paris. (Yeah, yeah. That’s it now. Promise.)

Here, therefore, is my step-by-step process to perfect flow.

  1. Do your research really well

Even the most accomplished writers will struggle to make their writing flow if they’re not confident in what they’re saying. Make sure you understand what you’re writing about, who you’re writing it for and what you want them to think, feel or do as a result. Say it out loud to see how much you really understand it.

If you’re doing ‘creative’ writing, including fiction or personal blog posts, jot down umpteen ideas. Don’t worry about them being mind-blowingly good or even barely original at this stage. The important thing is to have lots of them so you can sift out the bad ones and play around with the good ones later.

If you’re already the world’s expert on the subject, skip to step 2.

2. Imagine your reader has no idea what you’re on about

When we’re steeped in a subject, it’s easy to forget our readers have no idea what’s inside our heads.

We know exactly what we mean when we write, “Come out the station, head towards the roundabout, cut across the lane to Des’s and we’re just by the bus stop.” We’ve worked here for years and could do the route blindfolded.

But our never-been-to-the-area-before visitor turns the wrong way out the station, goes towards another roundabout, can’t find Des’s but spies what looks like an office behind a bus shelter… and ends up in the funeral directors.

Picture your reader standing at the beginning of your writing with no clue how to get to the end. Give them something familiar they can relate to. Explain new stuff with examples. Introduce each new point when they’ve got the previous one.

  1. Construct your skeleton logically

“The foot bone’s connected to the leg bone. The leg bone’s connected to the knee bone. The knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone…” (Walt Disney Productions 1929, in case you’re wondering.)

Start with the big picture. Don’t worry about beautifully crafted sentences at this stage. Get the basic structure right.

Your beginning should make it clear what the piece is about, where it’s going and (depending on what it is) what you want your reader to think, feel or do at the end.

Each new point needs to flow naturally into the next without the reader wondering what they’d missed. Sprinkle a few reassurances on the way (“you should see Boots on your right”) and signposts on the way (“this is where it gets complicated”) so they’re prepared for the rope bridge ahead.

The end should be a logical conclusion. Your reader shouldn’t be wondering what they missed – or what the point of the piece was.

Don’t worry if you’re cutting and pasting like crazy at this stage. Putting the skeleton on the page is part of the ‘getting it from your head to the reader’ process. Heavens forbid they should actually read the contents of your mind!

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  1. Leave time for transition between drafts

Ideally, leave as long as possible between drafts so you can read your writing objectively. If you do it too soon, you’re still too close to the subject and can’t focus well enough on the writing.

Your first draft might have a few XXXs, ‘check brief’ and ‘speak to XX about XX’ peppered around. Now, with a clearer head, you can add some of the detail that felt overwhelming in the first draft.

Adding transition words such as “therefore”, “however”, “nevertheless”, “consequently” and “whereas” can help link one sentence and/or paragraph to the next. For example, “however, if you get as far as the BP garage, you’ve gone too far”.

But don’t get carried away with them. You don’t need them at the beginning of every sentence or paragraph – and you certainly don’t need to keep writing “so”. Like everything else concerned with good flow, transition words should be almost imperceptible.

Once you’re happy with facts/details/accuracy and the structure of the document overall, you can now listen to the actual writing itself.

  1. Listen to the music

It might take several drafts (13 is not unusual for me) but eventually you’re pretty happy with the contents and structure. Now you can focus on the musicality.

Read your writing out loud. Not in your head. Not mouthed. Not whispered. Out loud so you can hear how it sounds.

Good writing is like good music. It should sound smooth and rhythmical. Sentences should stop where you think they should stop. It shouldn’t feel like there’s a ‘note’ or two missing – or too many. It shouldn’t sound clunky or turgid. And you shouldn’t be out of breath when you get to the end of a sentence.

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A final word of advice

Be realistic about how long you spend on any piece of writing. There will come a time when you’ve done all of the above and the final piece is flowing as smoothly as my metaphorical hot chocolate.

Spending more time tweaking the odd transition word or changing a full stop to a semicolon won’t make the piece better; it will just make it different. Stop. Publish it. And move on to the next.

Photo courtesy of Giancarlo Duarte on Unsplash

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