A close friend asked me about writing flow in an email saying: I wish I knew what the mechanics are of writing that flows so that it’s invisible vs that which is not flowing so you notice. Masters know how to do the first.
My initial internal response was something like flow in writing isn’t mechanical, there really is no formula for it. I started poking around the web Googling writing flow and how can I make my writing flow. I found articles that talked about staying on topic, transitions, varied sentence length and such, none of it particularly helpful in my opinion.
How I think about flow
Then I began to wonder what I meant by flow in writing and concluded it’s a very squishy concept. After all, many of us can remember writing that flowed even though it didn’t stay on topic or make nifty, easy to understand transitions, etc. It’s rare, often called poetry, and it happens. The words fit together and the reader knows, roughly, what the writer is talking about. It seems, when reading, that the writing is effortless – the ideas may require work, but the writing itself appears to the reader be exactly right to communicate that idea. We recognize flow when we see it – defining it is harder. Figuring out how to explain so someone else can do it is harder still.
When I read I tend to ‘hear’ the words. It happens even when I’m reading rapidly. When I don’t notice that I’m reading the piece I’m reading could be said to flow. In fact, when I’m editing it’s usually when something interrupts, like a typo or a poorly cast sentence or a word that doesn’t fit, that I stop, reread and usually suggest a change.
Water is a great teacher of flow
When I think of flow I first think of water, not writing. Water is always on the move from one point to another. It flows down hill until it is stopped by the earth, forming a lake, or the sea. Wind moves it in these bodies of water, as does tide and evaporation, ultimately carrying it high so it can continue it’s journey. Even when trapped in plastic bottle, it eventually escapes to continue it’s journey.
Of course the flow of water changes in an infinite number of ways. The small, slow creek can become a raging torrent if heavy rain falls. Water from your faucet ebbs and flows at your command unless someone cuts the pipe bringing it to your home.
Writing can be much the same. Torrents of words can flow just as words can be dripped with exciting or agonizing speed and everything in between.
Paying attention could be the key to flow
Successful writers, the ones we enjoy, or look to for good information, or read because they lyrically address something that’s close to our hearts have, I think, found a way to pay close attention to their work. They are actively watching their words as they appear on the screen or on paper. Their pauses while writing are, I strongly suspect, an act of listening – to their still small voice or for the next idea. They aren’t afraid to write a sentence or a paragraph or more and then tear it up or delete it because it isn’t ‘right’ or it doesn’t ‘flow.’
When editing their own work of someone else’s, they are paying a different sort of attention – one that more closely mimics a reader than a writer.
They also have given up the idea of perfection when it comes to their writing. If they hadn’t we’d never see it. Perhaps they’ve come to terms with the idea they can’t even recognize perfection, or maybe they are just up against a deadline. Both realizations work.
Patience and practice with writing is a key to flow
None of us were born knowing how to write. In fact, we weren’t born knowing language at all or how to use it. Some of us are drawn to writing and if we’re to be successful writers with a decent audience we’ve done a lot of reading and a whole lot of practice with our writing. We probably didn’t recognize how patient we were being as we wrote, and submitted, accepting rejection and the doubts of friends and family, and wrote again. We actually exhibited some discipline!
Sometimes our writing is easy and flows almost without effort. At others we struggle with each sentence, both in the rough draft and in the subsequent effort. It’s anything but a mechanical approach I think, and much more a matter of the heart and/or intuition.
As always, write well and often,