December 2013 -->

Walden University Writing Center

Where instructors and editors talk writing.

Five Ways to Create Flow in Your Writing

At the Writing Center, we often talk about the flow in writing. While it’s a small word, flow incorporates many parts of writing, which can make it difficult to define and complicated to achieve. Creating flow involves using logical connections between ideas, strong topic sentences to start paragraphs, transitions to link sentences, concise wording, and a varied sentence structure.

Good flow in writing is like a good road trip

One commonality between these parts of writing is that they make the reader’s job easier. And, that’s essentially what flow is: Techniques and characteristics of good writing that make the writing easy for the reader to navigate and understand. In this way, good flow is a lot like a good road trip.

Make logical connections in your writing

Logical connections

If I was writing a paper about the advantages of online education, I might first discuss how online education can be useful to people who are working adults, as well as people who live in rural areas. But what if I then talked about how students are more engaged when they live on campus?

Wait, what?

This last idea doesn’t fit with my other two ideas, so my reader will have to pause and try to understand the connection, thus interrupting the flow. This idea that doesn’t fit is like road construction. Both the unconnected idea and the construction impede progress, and the reader, like a driver, must take extra time and effort to try to figure out a way to get around the construction. But, remove the road block—the idea that doesn’t fit—and driver/reader has smooth sailing.

Topic sentences are like sign posts for readers.
Topic sentences

In academic writing, topic sentences are the first sentences of a paragraph that tell the reader the focus of the paragraph. See how I used a topic sentence for this paragraph? My first sentence clearly told you, as the reader, that I was going to discuss topic sentences in this paragraph. Topic sentences act as informational sign posts so readers can anticipate what’s coming up ahead.

Transitions are like bridges in your writing.

Transitions create flow by linking ideas and sentences. Writers can create transitions in a couple of ways: (1) using words like additionally or however to begin sentences and (2) repeating key terms or phrases between sentences. Transitions are like bridges between roads. They help guide the reader between sentences, showing the reader how to easily get from one sentence to the next, just like a bridge can bring you from one side of the road to the other safely and easily.

Clear, concise writing helps create flow.

Clear, concise wording.

Clear and concise wording also creates flow. Take this sentence: Online education, which means education in an online format where you are not face-to-face with your teacher or classmates, can help a student become more proficient in their area of expertise or field, which in turn can also help a student show leadership skills and receive a promotion or recognition for his/her good work at their job.

Whew, that’s a long one. Note all the phrases and ideas stacked on top of one another that the reader must navigate. Instead, I could have easily said: Online education helps students become proficient in their field, which can result in recognition for students in the form of a promotion. Much clearer! This sentence has the same meaning as my previous sentence, but is more concise and easier to follow. Using concise and precise wording is like creating a direct route in a road trip. Instead of taking your reader through all the winding back roads and causing car sickness, you’re taking the reader on the most direct route to your ideas.

Variety in sentence structure helps create flow.

Varied wording and sentence structure

Avoiding repetition creates flow by getting readers interested in your ideas and in the way you talk about your ideas. Think taking a long road trip through flat, rural countryside. Without variety in scenery, the drive can become boring pretty quickly. Variety in scenery—like variety in sentence structure—makes the journey more interesting.

Take these sentences, for example: Online education is beneficial for many students. Online education benefits many students in rural areas. Online education benefits many students working full-time jobs. My sentence structure is the same in each sentence (a simple subject + verb construction), and I repeat the words online education, benefit, and many students. Here’s another version that varies the sentence structure and wording, and thus is more engaging: Online education is beneficial for many students. In particular, students in rural areas and those working full-time jobs can find online education convenient and useful.

As you write, remember to use logical connections; topic sentences; transitions; clear, concise writing; and varied wording and sentence structure. If you can master these aspects, then you’re on your way to creating flow in your writing!

Editor's Note: In 2016, we expanded Beth's discussion of flow in academic writing. Our Instructors and Editors expanded on each one of these strategies in a full-length blog post. So, if you'd like more insight and instruction on any of these five categories, check out our Writing Center Greatest Hits Update: 5 Flow. Follow this link to access the expanded, in-depth discussion on increasing your writing's flow today!

Writing Instructor and Coordinator of Webinar Writing Instruction Beth Oyler writes about literature in her spare time and enjoys contemplating the possibilities writing creates.


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What to Expect When You're Expressing: U.S. Academic Writing Norms

You’ve likely noticed that here at Walden, you have needed to adjust your writing style to meet your assignment requirements and your instructors’ expectations. Many of the norms of scholarly writing, while not always simple, are at least likely familiar to you: Students must cite sources in APA style, follow specific formatting requirements (as modeled in our templates), and maintain scholarly voice. Most of the questions we receive in the Writing Center relate to such issues.

U.S. writing expectations
American schools generally teach Standard American English, a form of English with specific requirements and expectations.
Some expectations of scholarly writing, however, are a bit more subtle and less often discussed. Here are a few specific expectations to keep in mind in your writing assignments:

1. Include an introduction and conclusion

For course papers, these are typically one paragraph each. Think of these as bookends for your paper: They hold the body of your draft together. For some great information on writing an introduction and conclusion, see our webinar titled “Beginnings and Endings: Introduce and Conclude Your Writing.”

2. State the main point of your paper in your introduction

Readers expect you to tell them right off the bat why you are writing the paper: What are you arguing? Why is your paper topic important? Some writers—particularly those who are less familiar with the U.S. writing tradition—are accustomed to building up to their main point throughout a paper and then ending the paper with their argument. At Walden, however, you are expected to state your main idea right away. This is why thesis statements—sentences that encompass your central argument—belong in your introductory paragraph (typically as the last sentence of the paragraph).

3. Use a linear organization

U.S. scholarly writing favors a linear progression of ideas, which means that each paragraph must clearly follow from the previous paragraph and must also relate to the paper’s central argument (expressed in the thesis statement). Writing an outline is often a helpful way to clarify your organization. For example, say that I’m arguing for the addition of professional development opportunities at a local school. My outline might look like this:

I. Introduction
II. Background
     a. Current professional development offerings
     b. Why current offerings are insufficient
IIIIntroduction of recommended professional development opportunities
IV. Benefits to these opportunities
V. Potential challenges to implementing professional development
VI. Suggestions for overcoming these challenges
VII. Conclusion

An outline like this helps ensure that each new paragraph follows logically and linearly from the previous paragraph.

4. Demonstrate critical thinking

Readers of American scholarly writing expect writers not only to research a topic, but also to make arguments based on that research. They expect writers to summarize but also to analyze, which often means that you will need to argue against another scholar’s ideas. This practice can be intimidating, but just remember that such arguments are essential to the creation of new knowledge. Our webinar titled “Demonstrating Critical Thinking in WritingAssignments” can help you develop this skill.

5. Analyze your evidence for your reader

In other words, you’ll want to help your reader interpret the evidence you use and cite. Say that you are using this statistic: “The graduating class of 2012 had a 23% dropout rate, an increase of 5% from the class of 2007 (citation).” Instead of just including that statistic and moving on, take some time to explain to your reader what that information means: “This trend reveals a need for immediate action on the part of administrators, teachers, and parents to encourage high school completion.” It may seem like stating the obvious, but this kind of analysis helps to ensure that you and your reader are on the same page.

What other scholarly writing expectations have you encountered at Walden, or at your school? Are there others we left out? Let us know in the comments!

We’re always looking for ways to improve our resources. If you're a current international and/or multilingual Walden student, please take our brief survey to help us improve our services for you. The survey link will remain posted here as long as the survey is active. Thank you!

Other posts you might like:

WriteCast Episode 002: Thesis Statements

Argue is Not a Dirty Word: Taking a Stand in your Thesis Statement

You're the Navigator! On Introductory Paragraphs and Topic Sentences

Calling All International and Multilingual Students!

Kayla Skarbakka is a writing instructor and coordinator of international writing instruction and support. She lives in Dallas, Texas, where she enjoys hiking, knitting, and making candy. 


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A 20-Minute Exercise in Using Specific Language

Maybe you only have a little time to devote to writing today, or maybe your paper is due this evening and you're wondering what other revisions you can reasonably make before needing to submit your work. Here's a quick exercise you can do in just 20 minutes to strengthen your writing.

Step 1

Use Microsoft Word's "find" feature to find every this and it in your paper. Hold down the CTRL key and the F key at the same time, which will open up a navigation panel or box:
MS Word's find feature
In MS Word 2010, this navigation panel opens on the side of the page when you hold down CTRL + F.

Step 2

Highlight every This or It that starts a sentence in your paper.

TIP: When you use the find feature, Microsoft Word automatically highlights the word you searched for in your text. You want to highlight the search results manually, on top of Word's automatic highlights, as the automatic highlighting will disappear once you close the navigation panel.
Use MS Word's find feature in this exercise

Step 3

Make sure that each highlighted This is followed by a specific noun rather than a verb. If a verb comes directly after This, either replace This with a specific noun or add a specific noun between the This and the verb. For example:

Original: The project involves data collection through an emailed survey. This requires that the participants...

Revision: The project involves data collection through an emailed survey. This method requires that the participants...

Here's another example:

After Thanksgiving dinner is a natural time to take a nap. This is caused by tryptophan in the turkey.

You, like many readers, may be asking yourself: This what is caused by tryptophan? To make the sentence's meaning clearer, the writer should include a specific noun or phrase after this, like This urge to nap. 

TIP: Not sure what specific noun to use? You can often use keywords or phrases from previous sentences. Repeating these words, or forms of the words, can help make connections between your sentences.

Step 4

Now, review each highlighted instance of it, and replace It with a specific noun.


People in the United States celebrate New Year's Eve each December 31. It typically involves a countdown and a ball drop.

Revision: People in the United States celebrate New Year's Eve each December 31. The holiday typically involves a countdown and a ball drop.

That's it!

Why is using specific language important? You might think that what the this or it refers to is clear--but you're the writer, so of course it's clear to you. An unidentified this or it can be confusing for readers, but using specific language helps readers know exactly what you're talking about.

Give this exercise a try, and let us know what you think in the comments!

Anne Shiell is a writing instructor in the Walden University Writing Center. She also coordinates the center's social media resources.


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What's the Problem With Passive Voice?

Regular readers of the Walden Writing Center blog will know that we’ve written about passive voice before. As Rachel pointed out in her blog post, passive voice constructions are grammatically correct. So why does APA prefer active voice? Why do instructors urge students to change “a study was conducted” to “I conducted a study?”

Getting an answer can sometime seem as vague as the tasting notes on a fine bottle of wine. Strunk and White wrote that passive voice is “less bold” while active voice is more “vigorous” and “direct” (p. 18). But again, students may raise the question: Why is passive voice less bold and vigorous? And what are the factors that make it so?
What's the Problem With Passive Voice?

George Orwell, in his classic essay "Politics and the English Language," argued that passive voice is a form of writing that leads to sloppy thinking. According to Orwell, “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts” (para. 2). These foolish thoughts, Orwell implied, are easier to have when language is purposefully confusing or deceptive. Following Orwell, many thinkers have since echoed the idea that passive voice constructions are a form of dodging responsibility. After all, “mistakes were made,” is quite a different statement than “I made a mistake.”

But it’s not just a lack of accountability that leads APA and others to prefer active voice constructions. APA also addresses economy of expression, reminding writers that “short words and short sentences are easier to comprehend than are long ones” (p. 67).  Because of the structure of passive voice and the inclusion of an auxiliary verb, passive voice constructions are almost always longer than active voice ones.

In short, clarity, accountability, and conciseness are just a few reasons that APA, George Orwell, Walden instructors, and Strunk and White all recommend active voice.

When he's not helping Walden students write to the best of their abilities, Writing Instructor Jonah Charney-Sirott enjoys writing fiction.


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