5 Flow Part 5: Vary Sentence Structure -->

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5 Flow Part 5: Vary Sentence Structure

We are pleased to present the final post in our 5 Flow series. In today's post, we discuss how providing variations in your sentence structure can ease the reader's task and aid them in comprehension. Below you will find a discussion of three different ways you can vary your sentence structure to enhance your writing's flow.  
The title image for the Vary Sentence Structure blog post.
Vary Sentence Structure to Enhance Flow
Imagine a 4-year-old sitting up at the piano playing that same note, for the same length of time, over and over. Maddening, right? Now replace the piano with a piece of writing. How would you feel if its author used the same type and length of sentence repeatedly?

Flow is the product of the sound of words and the  patterns and rhythms they create. Sentences with flow are well crafted and thus the reader can move through a document with ease. (To see if your sentence has flow, try reading it out loud.) Flow avoids retarding a reader’s speed and comprehension. If your writing has flow, the word order and length of your sentences will exhibit variety or rhythm. You’ll write sentences that are clear and easy to read.

To enhance the flow in your writing, I suggest a regular practice of varying your sentence structure throughout your prose. Flow is a product of well-constructed sentences, and Unlike a list, which uses the same type throughout, the sentences of a paragraph require variety in type, rhythm & word order, and length. Here are my suggestions for how you can become more adept in all three variations. 

Sentence Type
Having variation in the grammatical type of your sentence will allow your reader, somewhat subconsciously, to more easily move through your text. Flow can be attained with the rhythmic combination of these primary sentence types: 

  • A simple sentence has just one independent clause: I bake bread regularly. I bake at least two loaves of bread every week.
  • A compound sentence has two or more independent clauses that are connected by a coordinating conjunction (but, and, or, so). Many people think that baking bread is difficult, but it’s not.
  • A complex sentence has one independent clause and at least one dependent clause (which starts with a subordinating conjunction, such as although, that, because, while). Although breaking bread is not as hard as some people think, it does take practice.
  • A compound-complex sentence has two or more independent clauses and at least one dependent clause. While I bake bread every week and think it’s pretty easy, it does take some time to measure the ingredients, let the dough rise, and then bake.

Good writers do not rely on any one type of sentence. Rather, they carefully weave a rhythmic mix of sentence types and lengths—from simple to compound to complex and compound–complex. All four types are needed to create flow.

Rhythm and word order
To improve the flow of a sentence, work on its rhythm. One approach is how a sentence starts. Avoid a series of sentences that start with the same subject—be it a noun, surname or pronoun. Mix it up. Use a preposition (in, to, at, etc.) or a gerund (mostly words that end in “ing”) or a dependent clause (which starts with a subordinating conjunction) instead. A lack of variety in the subject can be distracting or even irritating to a reader. (And the last thing you want to do is irritate your reader.)

Another way to improve flow through rhythm is to alternate among long, short, and medium-length sentences. If your paragraphs contain too many short sentences in a row, say, 3–6 words, readers will quickly become bored due to the repeated patterns and the fact that all ideas carry the same weight. A run of short sentences can leave a reader breathless. Short sentences allow little room for synthesis. On the other hand, if your paragraphs contain too many long sentences in a row, say, 20 words or more, readers can become confused, even overwhelmed.

Whether too short or too long, most readers will have trouble reading and retaining what you have written. Style must serve meaning in scholarly writing. Try to avoid letting a writing style get in the way of your ideas and arguments. But the answer lies not in creating all medium-length sentences (8–14 words). 

Writing requires skill. It’s not easy to create sentences that say just what you want them to say. Generally, readers should not have to work too hard to understand a piece of writing. Difficulty in reading and comprehension should reflect only the density and complexity of the subject matter, not a writer’s weaknesses. Thus, it’s important to work on clarity and flow.

This is the fifth and final part in a five-part series on flow in academic writing. If you have further questions or comments about this topic, please don't hesitate to comment on this post or any of our posts in this series.

Tim McIndoo is a Senior Dissertation Editor in the Walden Writing Center. He came to Walden University in 2007 with over 30 years of editorial experience, including work as translator and photographer. He lives in Minneapolis with four cats.

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  1. I think the experinced writer discovers early that sentences can be monotonous. too many simple sentences or too many compound or complex sentences, one after another, can be annoying. too many sentences containing 'and' or 'and so' can make a reader bored and drowsy.To resolve this broblem we need to use two methods. 1. how to vary beginning of sentences:
    1. throuth placing an adverb at the beginning of a sentence. e.g. oroginal: we saw him later.
    varied: later we saw him.
    2. throuth placing a preposition phrase at the beginning of the sentence. e.g. original: we were finally able to see him in the evening.
    varied: in the evening we were finally able to see him.
    and so on by placing ( adverbial clause, verb phrase and a verbal)
    2. through combining sentences such as: appositive:
    yesterday, sunday, was a holiday.
    we, girl, went on the picnic.
    and so on such as:(adverb used as a noun, adverb used as an adjective, adverb used as adverb, a participle used as an adjective and etc...)
    thank you Dr. suleiman Ibrahim

  2. Dr. Ibrahim. Thank you for this thoughtful and informative response to this article. Your comments show the interpretive and artistic nature of language (yes, even scholarly language), and we thank you very much for taking the time to share your insight and expertise with our Center and our readers.


    The Walden University Writing Center

  3. It was one of my IELTS writing issues. Hope that it can help me because I have understood some of the flow.

    1. We hope it will be helpful to you as well! Thanks for reading!