Making paragraphs flow

Screen Shot 2018-05-12 at 3.41.54 PMWe all know that good paragraphs cohere around a single topic and are book-ended by strong, analytical take-away sentences. But how can a disjointed, staccato-sounding paragraph be made to have flow?

Flow is an elusive quality — it’s the sense that sentences move logically and seamlessly without repetition or heavy-handed transitioning. Sometimes this flow comes from the structure of the paragraph itself, which may follow an order such as

  • general to particular (big to small),
  • particular to general (small to big),
  • question to answer, or
  • effect to cause.*

But when the paragraph as a whole doesn’t have an overarching shape, how can a writer make their ideas flow logically? If you’ve ever been told that your writing is “choppy” or “fragmented,” here’s your fix:

Flow can be created within a paragraph by ensuring each sentence follows a “given/new” pattern. Start with the information that your reader will be familiar with, and then add new details. Those new details thus become information that your reader is familiar with, and you can append more new details in your second sentence.

Here’s a short example of a paragraph that follows the given/new pattern:

  • Every semester after final exams are over, I’m faced with the problem of what to do with books of lecture notes (new information). They (old) might be useful some day, but they just keep piling up on my bookcase (new). Someday, it (old) will collapse under the weight of information I might never need. (source: The Purdue OWL)

Contrast it against this example of sentences that don’t follow the given-new structure:

  • The time it takes the moon to orbit the Earth is called the lunar month. Twenty-seven days is one lunar month. (source: Manchester University HumNet)

The given/new pattern is even more important than other recommended structures, such as favouring the active voice. Contrast these two examples, from Raimes’ How English Works (1998):

  • Choppy: Researchers have been examining the way people choose to sit in a library. The other people in the room often determine the choice of seat.
    • The second sentence is in the active voice, which is usually preferable, but it is unclear because presents new information (“The other people in the room”) before the old information (“choice of seat”)
  • Flowing: Researchers have been examining the way people choose to sit in a library. The choice of seat is often determined by the other people in the room.
    • Here, the second sentence is in the passive voice, but it is still clearer because it presents old information (“choice of seat”) before new (“the other people in the room”).

In English, this given/new pattern provides paragraphs with a linear logic that makes them easier to follow.

Finally, note that not all paragraphs will follow an A-to-B, B-to-C, C-to-D given/new pattern.

You can also adhere to the given/new pattern by following an A-to-B, A-to-C, A-to-D pattern, as in:

  • To heat the sample, tungsten-halogen lamps are used below and above the fused silica tube. These lamps contain a tungsten filament and bromide gas inside a quartz bulb. By resistive heating alone, the lamps can attain temperatures of 300 °C to 400 °C. (Source: Penn State’s e-Education Institute).

In this example–excerpted from a longer text, as we see through reference to some cut-off old information, “heat the sample”–keeping the subject of each sentence consistent provides the reader with that clear, dependable pattern wherein they always receive given information before they are expected to assimilate new details.

Recommended reading:
Williams, Joseph M. Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. Longman Publishing Group, 2007.

* Here, I paraphrase Wheaton College Writing Centre’s excellent guide on Paragraph Unity, Coherence, and Development.

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