Think about your favorite author. They seem to have something different, something … magnetic. They pull you in. You might die of boredom reading other content, but this writer makes the act of reading an absolute joy.
What if you could learn what makes that writing so captivating?
In today’s post, we’ll talk about that elusive thing that makes you lose all sense of time; it’s the thing that drags you into a book, pulls you into a story, or keeps your eyes on an advertisement — it’s engaging flow.
Every author of every classic book uses specific techniques to grab the reader and keep them locked in place. And whether you’re an author, a marketer, or you just want to learn that superpower, I’ve broken down the four most important elements of good writing that can take you to the next level (hint: none of them include a big vocabulary).
I can’t make you the next Hemingway, but I can teach you the building blocks of engaging words so you can grip your audience and hammer your message.
Why Writing Flow Is Critical to Holding Attention
I want you to forget everything you’ve learned about big words and grammar rules. We don’t need them here. We’ll leave the boring grammar lecture and unnecessarily large adjectives for a different blog.
Let’s get down to the juicy stuff.
Writing flow is a great place to start. Here’s my attempt at a textbook definition: a measure of how the reader scans a passage — typically achieved by using a variety of sentence lengths, syntax, and punctuation.
Now that’s all fine and dandy, but nobody gets hyped for a dry definition. Let me explain why good writing flow can change everything for your writing.
Proper writing flow makes your copy feel … connected. It meshes and blends together — it weaves and winds in a way that leaves the reader wondering, “What’s next?”
Ever been whitewater rafting?
I haven’t. But I can still use the analogy. Don’t judge.
Let’s imagine you’re on a whitewater rafting trip. For a lot of it, you’re taking in the beauty around you. You’re not wondering when the ride will be over — you’re completely lost in the moment. Sometimes the river races; sometimes it’s calm and serene. Sometimes it nearly throws you overboard, and sometimes it leaves you to think through what just happened.
You’re not checking your watch and going, “Ugh, I have better things to do.” That’s because each bend and twist comes with interesting things to see, to experience, to learn. Finally, you reach the end … and you wish you could do it all over again.
Good writing is like that whitewater rafting trip.
And you don’t have to be an English major to see it, either. Let’s look at an example of a sentence with bad writing flow:
If the cat jumps up on my keyboard or wants to get another treat, piece of plastic or food when he’s not supposed to, he’ll think he owns the house.
It’s not wrong, it’s just not fun to read. You wouldn’t want to read more than one sentence like that. It’s clunky. It’s fast in all the wrong places. And it doesn’t feel cohesive.
Now let’s wave our wand and clean this puppy up. Here’s what pleasing writing flow looks like:
If the cat’s allowed to jump on my keyboard, eat from the cabinets, and chow down on plastic, he’ll think he owns the house.
Doesn’t that just … feel better?
So what’s the difference?
There are four consistent elements of captivating writing flow, and we’ll walk through them one by one.
Don’t get spooked by the name — I know it sounds like it came straight from a nightmare about 7th-grade English class.
Parallel structure is just the repetition of similar patterns in a sentence. If you’ve ever made a list of three things, like this: “Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles” — you’ve used parallel structure. Congratulations!
Okay, okay, so why is parallel structure so important to your writing flow? Let me throw another bad sentence at you to demonstrate:
Ellen likes hiking, to attend the rodeo, and taking afternoon naps.
… Ew. I’m an editor, so it might just be in my blood — but that sentence makes my skin crawl.
Now let’s look at a better version:
Ellen likes to hike with friends, attend the rodeo, and take afternoon naps.
Ah. Isn’t that better? Pleasant, right? One more example. Here’s bad structure:
Go under the bridge, then cross over the river to the other side, and get yourself into the tunnel.
And the parallel structure version:
Go under the bridge, over the river, and through the tunnel.
Wonderful. Everything just fits. So what did I do here?
Basically, I’ve lined our list up using a pattern. Here we have a list divided by commas. In the bad example, we’re using three different verbs: go, cross, and get. But one would do just fine: go.
I’ve also used the same three-word structure to describe each action — under the bridge, over the river, through the tunnel.
Finally, I’ve even lined up our parts of speech … I see you cringing. Don’t worry — English class can’t hurt you anymore. It gets lighter after this.
The pattern goes preposition (under, over, through), article (the, the, the), noun (bridge, river, tunnel).
Here’s a principle to keep in mind when you’re writing: the human brain loves patterns. We’re pattern-recognizing machines! It’s what makes music enjoyable, art appreciable, and math … Well, some people go for that sort of thing.
Notice what I did there. I led you on with my parallel structure. Music enjoyable, art appreciable, and math … nothing. That contrast makes it entertaining to read. You expected one thing, but you got another. So when you learn how to use parallel structure to create symmetry with your writing flow, you can also break it to create a surprising effect.
Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to find these perfect parallels in your writing. Words are often messy, and I’ve given perfect examples purely for demonstration. I won’t say “don’t try this at home,” but I will warn you: you’ll triple your writing time if you try to find the perfect parallel structure for every list. Do your best, but don’t bang your head against the keyboard for it.
If you’ve ever seen a zombie movie, you know dead weight can really drag you down. Language is no different — most of us use unnecessary words all the time. For example, you might be surprised to learn that most adverbs are entirely unnecessary. They add color, sure, but they also clutter up your message.
Take that sentence I just wrote, for example. Remove the “entirely” in italics, and you’ve got a perfectly nice, stand-up sentence that you’d feel comfortable taking home to meet your parents.
So here’s my very academic definition of a dead word: it’s usually an adverb that doesn’t contribute to the message. Remember, adverbs typically end in -ly.
Here’s an example:
Actually, I wonder if he needs more food. He definitely seemed famished when I fed him, and his really large belly was clearly smaller than usual.
Feels claustrophobic, doesn’t it? Now slice out those dead words!
I wonder if he needs more food. He seemed famished when I fed him, and his large belly was smaller than usual.
Much better. When a piece feels “fluffy,” dead words are usually the culprits — those dirty scoundrels! They clog up the writing flow and frustrate the reader. Without adverbs cluttering up our message, though, the sentence can breathe and the reader can easily follow our descriptions.
I’m going to give you a challenge (it’s not much of a challenge). It’s the latest craze, in fact (it’s not). Alright, well maybe for writing nerds, at least (closer to the truth).
It’s called: The Dead Word Challenge.
I know. So inspired. But here’s the deal: for the next week, try to cut the words obviously, actually, and clearly out of your vocabulary. You don’t have to cut them out forever — even I use them on occasion — just long enough to shake free. Walk around without them, see how it feels. You might find you’re better off.
Have you ever read a passage that was just … really hard? It wasn’t necessarily advanced — just difficult to get through. Here’s an example:
They’re pescatarians, so each eats eels, but they each hate veal.
Notice how your eyes have to sift back through the sentence to make sure you read it correctly? That’s called a stumbling block. Stumbling blocks are anything that gives the reader pause. In the worst cases, they’re forced to read a passage over again.
These pesky eye traps are usually set when a writer places words with similar letter arrangements right next to each other. Eels, each, hate, and veal use the letter a, e, or both. They’re all four-letter words, and they all got smashed up next to each other.
Here’s a better version:
They’re pescatarians, so eels are fine, but they won’t have any veal.
Many of us were taught in English class that alliteration is clever — and it can be — but we must always place the reader’s experience above our own cleverness. Rereading sentences is annoying. Full stop. And if I have to reread your sentence because you tried to be clever … well, I’ll end up even more frustrated.
Word processing takes a lot of brainpower. It takes even more energy to separate similar-sounding or similar-looking words. Don’t waste the short time you have with your audience frustrating and exhausting them with bad writing flow.
It’s our job as writers to lead the reader smoothly through our message. Every extra step and stumbling block could mean the difference between someone processing your message and someone looking away out of frustration. We have to earn our keep — no one is forced to read our stuff.
Accessibility note: people with dyslexia have a tough time distinguishing between letters. If you want to remain accessible (or at least not inaccessible), it’s important to remember this.
Intuition (Yes, Really)
I can hear my 9th-grade English teacher now: “Intuition is for writers who know the rules!”
But I have to disagree, Mrs. Carlson.
Everyone knows when a sentence just doesn’t quite feel right. There’s something … off. You might not have the tools or education to call it by a particular name or even point out the problem, but you know when something doesn’t work. It’s causing problems in your paragraph and you just know it will rip readers out of their flow.
Well, I have the cure-all solution for the sentences ailing you.
It will literally solve every grammar and style problem you have, and it’s incredibly simple. Once you embrace it, you’ll get a sense of liberation you’ve never felt before.
You see, there’s a classic line from a man named William Faulkner that many artists grudgingly follow … even when it hurts:
“Kill all your darlings.”
He means everything you love. That little bit of wordplay you liked, that section of the blog post you really wanted to cram in, and yes — that sentence you just can’t make work no matter how hard you try.
Don’t ctrl-x it, don’t move it — delete it. Trust that you’re smart enough, that you’re capable enough to come up with something better. Release the pressure valve and let yourself write freely. Language is part of who we are. You’ll find something better. I know you will. Trust your instincts and you’ll be back writing with good writing flow in no time.
4 Keys to Good Writing Flow
We’ve covered a lot today, so let’s summarize the four ways you can make your sentences’ writing flow smoother:
- Use parallel structure
- Cut out dead words
- Remove stumbling blocks
- Use intuition to spot weird sentences and rewrite them
If you do all of these things, you’ll be on your way to captivating, engaging material that will make readers fall into a trance. They’ll wake up having fully digested your message — and that’s every writer’s dream.