Go with the Flow—Please

By Doug Wagner

I recently lost a couple of clients at one of the most important stages of the writing process—the stage where thoughts and actions are tied together to create the flow that makes readers forget they’re reading. When writing ebbs, readers suddenly find that they have to work, that they have to figure out how a particular thought or action is connected to the next one. While readers thrive on figuring things out, this isn’t the kind of work they hope for.

Sometimes they need to wait till the end of the paragraph to understand why the author switched gears back at the beginning of the paragraph, leaving them to wander in the dark in the meantime. It’s like when you’re telling a joke and realize you forgot a key bit of setup and you suddenly veer back in time to catch everybody up. While you know where you’re going, whoever’s listening is momentarily lost. If you have a captive audience, great, but readers aren’t captive audiences. Asking them to trust that it will all make sense in the end isn’t a great approach to writing. In fact, trust works the opposite way: You earn readers’ trust by constantly—with literally every word—assuring them they’re in good hands.

Of course, there’s also just something pleasing about words that flow. When sentence after sentence begins with a subject-verb-object construction, that’s not flow—that’s the literary equivalent of stagnant water. Example: “She turns her head slowly. She sees me. I approach and stand over her. I regard her fear and feel it fuel something inside me.”

By the time I get to that last sentence, I have a hard time giving it its due, because I’m so distracted by the peculiar stilted rhythm that’s dragged me there. With a little more attention to flow, it could read like this: “Slowly, she turns her head. When she sees me, I approach and stand over her. I regard her fear and feel it fuel something inside me.”

A similar problem is the use of too many sentences consisting of three or more clauses that simply list a character’s actions. Example: “Bill opened his desk drawer, removed a pen and unscrewed the cap. He tapped the cap on his desk, pulled out a listening device and put it in his ear. Then he pushed the button on his intercom, told his secretary to send their guest in and leaned back in his chair.”

Reads like a list, right? With the investment of a bit more labor, the same information could be delivered with a varied rhythm that, rather than numbing readers, will engage them: “From inside his desk drawer, Bill pulled out a pen, and from inside the pen, he pulled out a listening device. When it was securely in his ear, he buzzed his secretary. ‘Send our guest in,’ he said and leaned back in his chair to wait.”

Flow is the definition of mellifluous, and that characteristic couldn’t have been assigned a more appropriate term. The word itself flows like a whispering stream. It’s a no-brainer that you want your writing to be described as mellifluous rather than as choppy, jarring or erratic, right?

If we can all agree on that, I suspect the only reason a writer would decline an edit to improve that all-important flow is that he or she can’t detect that it needs as much improving as it does. Which, in theory, is one of the skills of detection you pay a good editor for. If you trust your editor, why be selective about accepting his or her guidance? I’m not saying you should go along with everything editors say, but when it comes to the big overarching problems, you need to be receptive to expert guidance. And by all means, get a second opinion—just make sure you seek out another editor who comes highly recommended by industry experts. It’s pretty easy to find editors who will tell you what you want t hear because they want your business.

Actually, there is one other possible reason to decline the edit: money. Flow may be the most laborious aspect of writing—think of how hard a single transition can be and now apply that concept to an entire manuscript—and, of course, laborious means relatively expensive. Which leads us to a concept that has mystified us here at Windword for as long as we can remember: aspiring authors’ reluctance to give their manuscript the best possible chance of success in an extremely competitive market. And hand in hand with that: aspiring authors’ expectations that they can succeed despite cutting those corners.

I sympathize with anyone who genuinely can’t afford to invest in success, but I’ve had many clients who’d planned on making the investment from the beginning of the writing process and saved for it like they would for anything else that’s that important to them. In a word, that’s what it takes. And it only makes sense—unless you have a solid background in writing, you can’t expect to become expert without some guidance. It’s like learning, you know, pretty much anything.

If you know up front that $3,000* is more than you can sacrifice to see your manuscript succeed, consider taking a writing class or joining a writers’ group where you can exchange feedback. Whatever you do, I’d strongly advise that you don’t spend money on half measures. Don’t skip ahead to a line edit or a copy edit if the editor advises you that there are structural problems that should have been addressed in the developmental stage. Don’t skip to a proofread if you haven’t had a professional edit at some point. While I can provide those services for you, it may be akin to assembling all the materials necessary to building a house and ending up with something that doesn’t look like a house, let alone something that lacks a pleasing architectural flow. In other words, it’s a waste of money if your plan is to land a publishing contract.

Imagine if Dr. Seuss had been the type of writer to dash off this paragraph, not giving flow more than a passing thought:

“Horton the elephant was splashing in the pool
and enjoying the great joys of the Jungle of Nool
in the heat of the fifteenth of May when he heard a small noise.”

Fortunately, he labored over it and did more than just give us the facts of the scene:

“On the fifteenth of May, in the Jungle of Nool,
In the heat of the day, in the cool of the pool,
He was splashing … enjoying the jungle’s great joys …
When Horton the elephant heard a small noise.”

He knew that while stories are made up of facts (be they fictional or nonfictional), they’re only half the battle. The other half is the language that ties them together. If you recognize that your writing more closely resembles the first paragraph than the second, also recognize that there are plenty of aspiring Dr. Seusses and Fitzgeralds and even Stephen Kings who are vying for the extremely rare designation of published author.

And you can be sure that they aren’t fighting the flow.

*You may need to spend more or less than $3,000 for an edit that will address flow, clarity and consistency of voice, but that’s a reasonable figure to count on.

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