Thursday, February 16, 2012

Freeing the Flow

One of the most common issues students request help with in the Writing Center is "flow."  People want writing to move smoothly from one point to the next, and in student writing, any speed bumps in that process find themselves slashed with red ink.

The body of your paper can be hard enough when you have a lot of ideas to tackle, and trying to get them all to flow nicely together sometimes feels like an insurmountable task.  The longer the paper, and the more ideas you're trying to work with, the trickier it can get.  Thankfully, it's not too hard to implement a method into your madness.

It's preferable to actually going mad, right?  I mean, seriously, no one wants to see a broken college student shuffling around campus muttering about hamsters and ficus plants to himself (or herself). That'd be sad.

To prevent such tragedies, we've compiled some tips and tricks to help make sure the journey through your paper is as painless as possible, for both you and the reader.

1. Obvious transition devices aren't the Devil.
Don't be afraid to be straightforward when you're moving from one point to another.  There seems to be this fear of overt usage of transition words, as if the key to "flow" isn't showing your reader how your ideas are moving, but was instead the acquisition of some perfectly sublime cipher that subconsciously draws the reader through your words like the Lazy River. 

It's not nearly that difficult.  In fact, if you try too hard to be subtle and tricky with your transitions, you make it more likely that your reader will get lost or frustrated.  Remember, what seems obvious to you may not be obvious to your reader.  You've got all those facts and context smooshed up in your grey matter.  The reader just has what's on your page.

Often, writers use signal phrases, which are just words (or phrases ... surprise) that give the reader a heads-up of something going on in the text.  Transitions are just one place where you can use these kinds of signals to keep your reader following the same road you're on.  (We'd hate for them to zig where they should have zagged and end up at some creepy hotel run by a murderous psychopath and his three pet koalas.) 

There are a plethora of good words and phrases that you can use to transition from one idea into the next, especially if you've already established that you plan on moving through several points.  Here are a few:

Similar Ideas - Also, just as, besides, similarly, likewise, furthermore, moreover
Contrast - However, instead, in contrast, conversely
Sequence/Timing - First, second, third (etc), next, then, finally, before, after, later
Exception - Besides, however, except, nonetheless, excluding, outside of, save, barring
Emphasis - Of course, even, in fact
Additional Evidence - And, also, again, as well, additionally
Cause and Effect - Because, so, therefore, thus, as a result, consequently

2. Utilize topic/closing sentences. 
One of the greatest places to give your reader an idea of where you are going is at the end of a paragraph or the beginning of a new one.  Sometimes the two even get together for tea and share the same goal.  Check out the example below:

In a recent study, koalas who were exposed to rainbows for three hours a day were reported as being much friendlier by their keepers.  They mauled fewer interns and stopped urinating on the wall within seventy-two hours of their exposure.  However, this is just one of the variables that have been known to affect koala behavior.

Recently, this same group of scientists discovered that koalas fed Cocoa Puffs suffered from horrible flatulence, leading to severe irritation.  Blah, blah, blah ...

See how the underlined sentence ties the two together?  (Bonus points for noticing the signal word) 

The transition lets the reader know that we plan on continuing our discussion on koala behavior, but also shows them the upcoming shift in direction.  Look at the ideas being discussed in your paragraph and see how it relates to the paragraphs before and after it.  (If you can't find any connection, you may need to work on organization.  You might find a more fitting spot for it closer to a more similar topic.)  Figure out what's changed.  Is it your point of view?  The approach?  A different side to the debate? 

By nailing down what the differences and similarities are between the two paragraphs, you can forge a transition that will stand the test of time!  ... Or at least your teacher's red pen.

3. Get a second set of eyes. 
Like I've mentioned in my earlier discussion on organization, your brain has ways of tricking you.  Have you ever had a moment where a snippet of conversation reminds you of something, which reminds you of something else (and so on and so forth) until you've made the mental jump from Grandma's favorite cookies to recent serial killer victims?  No?  Well, you haven't lived then.

All cookies and pre-meditated murder aside, it's easy to see the context of your own writing.  You know that subconscious Lazy River effect I mentioned earlier?  That does happen sometimes ... to us writers.  It's easy to leave out little bits and pieces that seem completely obvious without realizing their importance. 

Having someone to look it over like a trusted friend or your Friendly Neighborhood Writing Center (I very much wanted to say Spider Man) can really help you locate those spots where your assumptions leave the reader in the dust.

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