What does the phrase word flow mean to you? It is a difficult metaphor to pin down because words don’t literally flow like a river or a stream. So, the definition of word flow can vary for each student, teacher, and writing instructor.
As a writing instructor, I had a few specific identifiers for word flow when reviewing a student’s essay:
- Simple, clear sentences that communicate in active voice.
- Limited rhetorical phrases or words.
- No dramatic grammar usage.
This last one may seem strange, so I want to lead with an example and anecdote. The last time I wanted to buy a rug, I visited my local IKEA store. When I approached the checkout counter, there was a sign posted that read: “It’s OK, to change your mind” with a little heart next to it.* I would like to give the folks at IKEA the benefit of the doubt and presume the comma is a translation issue from Swedish to English. However, my first assumption is that the comma was included for dramatic effect. In other words, a dramatic pause after the reassuring phrase “It’s OK.”
Eliminating that excess comma would improve word flow immensely! Take a minute to read these sentences out loud:
- “It’s OK, to change your mind.”
- “It’s OK to change your mind.”
Hear the difference? That’s word flow.
* Side note: Apparently some Ikea store signs have better word flow:
|IKEA: it's OK to change your mind... by Feeling My Age | Flickr (CC by 2.0)|
A quick tip that you are sure to like:
Quite often, many of us write with the same inflections found in our speech. And while it is true for all writing that there should be a distinct scholarly voice versus an informal voice, this distinction is especially true for APA where the proofs are founded on scientifically proven measurements.
Lucky for all of you wonderful readers, I have a quick tip to help improve word flow and your scholarly voice. It is as easy as finding just one word that you might be using unnecessarily throughout your writing: which.
The word which introduces what professional writing gurus refer to as a nonrestrictive clause. This particular clause includes information that can be eliminated from your sentence without changing the meaning of your sentence. The issue is that we often use the word which, which introduces unnecessary information, when the word that will suffice.
By contrast, the word that introduces a restrictive clause. In other words, a clause that—you guessed it—is necessary to the sentence and changes the meaning if it is removed. The catch is that the word which requires a comma before it, and the word that does not. That comma interjects a short pause into your writing, which is quite often unnecessary.
Let’s take a look at some examples:
- Here is a quick tip that you are sure to like.
- Here is a quick tip, which you are sure to like.
Which is correct? Well, both are correct because the phrase you are sure to like is additional information and can be removed from the sentence without altering its meaning. However, the first example does not contain a pause. And the absence of that pause helps increase word flow.
Here’s a trickier example:
- My dentist only accepts Melba Dental Care Insurance, which is great for me because I am covered by Melba.
- I have strawberry or orange candy; which do you prefer?
Which is correct? Both are correct! The first example is a nonrestrictive clause, but it is useful information for your reader or listener. The second exemplifies another function of the word which: the word which indicates a choice between objects.
What I would like all of you to do is open the latest document that you are working on. Go ahead, I’ll wait. OK. Now, use the find function (ctrl+f or command+f) and find the word which throughout your document. Here’s the test: When you find the word which in your document, determine if the information that follows it is relevant and necessary to the sentence.
- If it is not relevant, and you want to keep the information, then make certain to add a comma before the word which.
- If it is relevant and you want to increase your word flow, then try exchanging the word that for the word which and eliminating the comma.
This test is great for becoming accustomed to the distinction between that and which. However, my rule for scholarly writing and word flow is pretty simple: I always prefer that over which. And that, ladies and gentleman, is how that can quickly improve word flow.
This month, we're discussing word choice on the blog and podcast. To catch up on what you missed, check out WriteCast Episode 24: Why Word Choice Matters, Matt's post on abolishing imperatives, and Hillary's post on writing meaningful and worthwhile sentences.
Shawn Picht, formerly a Writing Center writing instructor, is the manager of faculty support in the Academic Skills Center. In his free time he likes to jog, jump rope, read literature and philosophy, write about his travels, and play Rolling Stones and Dylan songs on a blue acoustic guitar.
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Tuesday, August 18, 2015 Word Choice
It’s the summer of ’15, and the song “Things Happen” by Dawes is getting significant airplay on my local radio station. If you haven’t heard it, tune in to the video at 1:31, 2:18, and 3:09:
The song settled in my brain beside the memory of an old Dunkin’ Donuts advertising campaign. Check out the commercial below. The jingle “doing things is what I like to do” is similarly catchy but also meaningless. What are these things? Why does the writer/actor/Dunkin’ Donuts coffee drinker like to do them?
Then I thought of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” with the redundant line “players gonna play, play, play, play, play and haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate.”
While there might be a purpose for these hollow phrases in pop culture, in academic writing, they just cause frustration and confusion. After all, in an essay, you do not have the amazing vocal range, instrumentation, or attitude; you just have words on a page that should resonate with readers and compel them to continue. If readers start to think Huh? or—worse yet—Duh! after a particular sentence, then you have lost them and your essay won’t get the attention it deserves.
In the Writing Center, we often talk about the paragraph as the unit of power in an essay. Today I want to take that discussion even narrower, to sentences and to individual words. A paragraph is only as meaningful as its parts. Let’s look at some examples.
Sentences that are too broad
In today’s society, education is an important topic.
This sentence is likely the first one in a student’s paper. The student wants to guide the reader into the essay’s subject matter carefully, with some background. I can see that. However, in this case, the sentence is just too general. What exactly is “today’s society”? Sure, education is an important topic, but what aspect of education? The keys for revision are to (a) determine a subtopic and (b) make the reader care.
Possible revision to narrow the focus: Because of the steady decline in U.S. high school graduation rates over the past 10 years (Smart, 2015), New York school administrators have developed greater retention efforts.
I used a variety of counseling tools on many occasions.
Like the previous example, this sentence does not tell me much. What are these tools? How were they used, and when precisely? As a reader, I want to grab hold of an idea and sink my teeth into it. This kind of sentence leaves me gnawing at air.
Possible revision to narrow the focus: As a counselor, I used active listening, open-ended questions, and eye contact in my initial interviews with clients.
Sentences that are unnecessary
Nurses have a plethora of knowledge about nursing.
The student in this example is essentially saying that nurses nurse (similar to Swift’s “haters gonna hate”). In a revision, more specific aspects of nursing should be conveyed so that the reader sees the true power of this nursing knowledge.
An employee is defined as “a person who works for another person or for a company for wages or a salary” (“Employee,” 2015, para. 1).
Chances are, an educated reader will already know what an employee is, so this definition is not needed. Sometimes it can be hard to determine what kind of knowledge a reader brings to your material. You should trust that a reader will understand common concepts in everyday adult life.
Imprecise words to watch out for
Thing and stuff. These words can refer to such a wide range of circumstances and contexts that you should eliminate them.
Many or most. How many is many? Replacing these adjectives with numbers aids precision.
Nowadays. This term can mean 2015, the past 20 years, or sometime in between. In revision, pick a precise year or time frame.
These problematic sentences and words might be easier to locate in other people’s writing than your own. That is because you approach others’ text without any specialized knowledge or attachment. Eventually, though, with practice, you will be able to assess your own writing for these overly broad or unnecessary sentences.
Practice: I challenge you to write a rough draft of your next assignment and then leave it on your computer for a day or two. Return to the document with fresh eyes and scrutinize the phrasing, looking for some of the indicators I have addressed in this post. How could you infuse those sentences with greater power? Share your thoughts and findings in the comments!
Hillary Wentworth, a writing instructor and the coordinator of undergraduate writing initiatives, has worked in the Walden Writing Center since 2010. She enjoys roller-skating, solving crossword puzzles, and basking in the summer sun. She lives in Minneapolis.
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Monday, August 10, 2015 Word Choice
As a Walden student, you likely have an interest in using your research to make a positive change in people’s lives—most Walden students do, and the university strongly supports efforts to apply scholarship that might otherwise remain abstract and theoretical to concrete, real-world situations. This is, on balance, a good thing. Sometimes, though, students’ enthusiasm for social change can overwhelm their writing, introducing biases that could lead a reader to question their objectivity as researchers and doubt the validity of their results.
Let’s look at two examples of what I’m talking about:
• Teachers must use differentiated instruction because students deserve to benefit from the best instructional methods available (Erickson, 2014).
• This prenatal education program should be implemented to help mothers in developing countries avoid disease.
Both of these statements are grammatically sound, and readers can easily comprehend their meanings. However, they are both imperatives, or statements that implore the reader to do something because it is essential or fundamental in some way. Imperatives can powerfully underscore a writer’s overall point and convince the reader to take action. Imperatives, though, do not really belong in your scholarly writing as a Walden student because in the social sciences, your arguments must be based (as much as possible) on logic and evidence.
You may have heard, in an English or writing course, of the three classical modes of persuasion: pathos, ethos, and logos, which basically mean persuading via emotion, authority, and logic, respectively. These are all effective ways of persuading a reader, and you can see them in your everyday life: Look at any television commercial, political ad, or opinion column, and you’ll likely find some or all of these persuasive appeals at work, making you desire a product, trust a respected official, or believe in the significance of a piece of data.
Imperatives, by appealing to our sense of right and wrong, are a potent application of pathos, and they can profoundly affect our judgments. Sometimes imperatives serve us well: When world leaders argue to take action to prevent atrocities like genocide or slavery, they often use imperatives because they’re appealing to our sense of compassion and decency. They’re not arguing that preventing these crimes is true; they’re arguing that it is right. In other cases, though, imperatives are misused to bolster arguments that lack evidence or logical coherence (a quality aptly captured by the term ) and lead readers to draw false conclusions. In those situations, imperatives distract us into believing something is right without concern for whether it’s true.
Our susceptibility to pathos is one reason why scientific research is based on the principle that we should not trust a judgment unless we can verify it with objective observations of the world around us. Consequently, social scientists avoid—and are skeptical of—appeals to our emotions or morals; social scientists use logos (and ethos, to some degree, by doing things like citing sources and maintaining a scholarly tone to establish their credibility) to articulate their research. Put another way, using imperatives in social-sciences writing is akin to sculpting marble with a bulldozer: It's the wrong tool for the task at hand, and it can destroy the very thing you’re trying to create.
With this in mind, let’s look at revisions of my two examples:
• In several recent studies, differentiated instruction has been identified as a more effective method than more traditional instructional techniques (Erickson, 2014).
• If implemented, this prenatal education program could help new mothers in some developing countries minimize the risk of their children being born with nutrition-related health problems.
Even though I might personally feel strongly that all students deserve to benefit from the best teaching methods available or that we should fund health education programs in developing countries, those sentiments don’t belong in my social-sciences writing. Limiting your claims to only what your evidence and analysis will support will make your arguments more precise and more compelling.
Matt Sharkey-Smith is a writing instructor and the coordinator of graduate writing initiatives at the Writing Center says, "It's at once paradoxical and commonsensical, but it's true: You get better at writing by writing."
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We've been talking about some big-picture writing ideas on the podcast lately--how academic writing helps you outside of academia, gray areas in APA style, writing expectations at U.S. colleges and universities--so this month, we're getting specific. In our latest episode, Beth and Brittany share several examples of words and phrases to avoid in your academic writing and explain how word choice impacts your precision and clarity.
Stream or download the episode below. If you're reading this post in your email, click on the post's title to visit the blog, where you can listen to the episode.
Episode 24 Transcript
As always, we welcome your thoughts and questions in the comments!
Anne Shiell is a writing instructor and the coordinator of social media resources at the Walden Writing Center. Anne also produces WriteCast, the Writing Center's podcast.
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