We all know when we read a piece of writing that flows well. We’re immediately drawn into it, and we want to read more because every point makes sense, it’s obvious how they all link together and we feel like we’re moving together towards a logical conclusion. It’s a nice, warm happy feeling.
So, whether writing an article, a white paper, a case study, a blog post, a book, a press release or any other type of writing – whether for myself or on behalf of one of my clients – I make sure my writing flows. I’m lucky in that I have a knack for it; I have an instinctive feeling for the cadence, structure and progression of the written word. It’s the flipside of the fact that my singing makes even my mum edge out of the room, I’m the laughing stock of my local yoga class, and everything I draw looks like a pig (except for pigs which look like machine guns, worryingly).
But I can write. And just as music teachers, art teachers, and yoga instructors have all bravely tried to insist that I can learn, I can improve, so I’m telling you that anyone can learn to write with flow. (The big difference is I’m not trying to stop laughing while I say it). So, if getting a flow into your writing is something you tend to struggle with here are five tips that you might find useful.
(Apologies if the examples are all a bit political – I lifted them largely from some training I did at a public affairs consultancy earlier this year)
1) Use the active not the passive voice.
The active voice is where the subject of the sentence comes before the verb, eg. “The Select Committee has recommended that the Government double the budget,” as opposed to the passive voice which is where the subject comes after the verb, eg. “A recommendation has been made by the Select Committee that the Government double the budget.”
The active voice is more direct, much easier to read, and helps your writing skip along unencumbered by too many unnecessary words.
2) Eliminate ambiguity in your use of pronouns.
“Cameron entered the chamber and sat down next to Osborne. He looked nervous.” Who looked nervous? Cameron or Osborne?
“They were drinking cold beer because it was warm.” What was warm? The beer? Why would they want to drink warm beer? No one chooses beer just because it’s warm. Of course, he means the weather was warm, so they were having a nice cold lager. I got there in the end, but it would have been better if they’d been clearer about what that pronoun “it” refers to.
“The Minister can react in one of three ways: ignoring the issue, engaging with us, taking it forward herself. This would be the best outcome for all concerned.” Which would be? Probably the last one, but I’m not 100% sure.
3) Maintain unity in your paragraphs.
Make a point in a paragraph and don’t stray off into a related but separate point
Tony Blair was electorally the most successful Labour leader ever. He won three elections, and commanded significant majorities in all three Parliaments. However, in 2005 he was actually beaten by Michael Howard in England. Michael Howard was the Conservative leader most commonly remembered for having been described by a colleague as “having something of the night about him”.
All good points, but we’ve ended up somewhere entirely different from where we started off. It’s confusing for the reader and it damages the flow of your writing.
4) Don’t assume the reader follows your train of thought.
“Electoral reform is essential in the UK. It would restore the legitimacy of Parliament. This is something that is now more important than ever before.”
Is it more important than ever before? In fact, while I’m at it, why would electoral reform necessarily restore the legitimacy of Parliament. I’m not sure I agree with that, and this passage has done nothing to bring me with the writer on her train of logic. It would have been much more convincing as…..
“Electoral reform is essential in the UK. It would allow each vote to count and so would do a great deal to restore the legitimacy of Parliament. This is something that is now more important than ever before as the expenses scandal has presented Parliament with its greatest test of legitimacy in a generation.”
5) Keep your sentences short
“Good writing is all about helping your reader to grasp your meaning, not confusing them with complexity and jargon, or leaping from point to point, but carefully guiding them from point to point, using the tools of grammar and punctuation where appropriate, and ultimately bringing them on a journey with you.”
I couldn’t agree more. However, wouldn’t it be better put as….
“Good writing is all about helping your reader to grasp your meaning. You should not confuse them with complexity and jargon. You should not leap from point to point. You should carefully guide them from point to point, using the tools of grammar and punctuation where appropriate. Ultimately you should bring them on a journey with you.”