Sentence flow comes from moving from old information to new
Readers follow a story most easily if they can begin each sentence with a character or idea that is familiar to them, either because it was already mentioned or because it comes from the context.
- Make the first six or seven words refer to familiar information, usually something you have mentioned before (typically your main characters).
- Put at the ends of sentences information that your readers will find unpredictable or complex and therefore harder to understand.
Sentence flow shows when to choose active voice, and when to choose passive voice
Do your sentences begin with familiar information, preferably a main character? If you put familiar characters in your subjects, you will use the active and passive properly.
11b. The quality of our air and even the climate of the world depend on healthy rain forests in Asia, Africa, and South America. But these rain forests are now threatened with destruction by the increasing demand for more land for agricultural use and for wood products used in construction worldwide.
…the beginning of the second sentence in (11b) picks up on the character introduced at the end of the first sentence…
…the passive allowed us to move the older, more familiar information from the end of its sentence to its beginning, where it belongs.
…that’s the main function of the passive: to build sentences that begin with older information. If we don’t use the passive when we should, our sentences won’t flow as well as they could.
Creating main characters
…be sure that the character is your central character, if only for that sentence.
Express crucial actions in verbs.
When you express actions not with verbs but with abstract nouns, you… clutter a sentence with articles and prepositions. Look at all the articles and prepositions (boldfaced) in (4b) that (4a) doesn’t need:
4a. Having standardized indices for measuring mood disorders, we now can quantify patients’ responses to different treatments.
4b. The standardization of indices for the measurement of mood disorders has now made possible the quantification of patient response as a function of treatment differences.
Make your central characters the subjects of those verbs; keep those subjects short, concrete, and specific.
Put complex bundles of ideas that require long phrases or clauses at the end of a sentence, never at the beginning.
The Quickest Revision Strategy
Make sure that each sentence begins with familiar information, preferably a character you have mentioned before.
Identify your main characters, real or conceptual. Make them the subjects of verbs.
Look for nouns ending in -tion, -ment, -ence, and so on. If they are the subjects of verbs, turn them into verbs.
…the last five or six words in every sentence.
- technical-sounding words that you are using for the first time
- the newest, most complex information
- information that is most emphatic
- concepts that the next several sentences will develop
…put those words last in the sentence.
- Shoch, Keith. “Finding Flow in Writing.” HowtoTeachaNovel.blogspot.com, 26 Jan. 2013, howtoteachanovel.blogspot.com/2013/01/finding-flow-in-writing.html. Accessed 23 Nov. 2016.
- Booth, Wayne C., et al. The Craft of Research. 4th ed., University of Chicago Press, 2016. Chapter 17.