Let It Flow — Part 1

Reader J asks how to ensure good flow in technical writing:

I’m going to be a graduate student soon. I follow your blog, especially when you talk about writing, because I’m not good at it. A problem I have had since middle school is that my sentences and paragraphs don’t flow well. My papers are “hard to read.” As a non-native English speaker, I also have to edit manually for parallel sentence structure, comma splices, and prepositional phrases. I have some good references for sentence structure and phrases, but how do I write smoothly?

First, I want to commend J for being conscientious about writing well so early in his or her career. This will make J’s advisor very happy!

Before I start dispensing wisdom, a disclaimer: I am (obviously) not a professional writer, editor, linguist, grammarian, or anyone who has any degree or certificate that would attest to any sort of formal qualification whatsoever to speak of good writing in English; in fact, I am not even a native speaker. What I do have are 10+ years of experience of being a professional scientist, publishing independently, writing grants, and training others how to report science in written form. Also, between Academic Jungle and xykademiqz, I have been blogging for what is now over 5 years! Considering that the readership appears to include people who are not related to me by blood or marriage, my blog writing may not be entirely hopeless.

I will try to share what I do, and if I know why I do it, I will try to share the rationale. Sometimes I do stuff simply because I think it works (I am sure there is literary theory on it, but I don’t know it). So please renormalize your expectations accordingly!

Now on to play a smartass…

Technical Writing: Not Entirely Unlike a Competitive Sport

In general, technical writing is relatively formulaic, and you can write passable research papers even if the prose is stifled. However, the quality of writing — good versus excellent — will make the difference between getting published in a middling versus very good journal, or between getting denied and getting funded. So I highly recommend working towards getting as good as you can. The good news is that you can become considerably better at technical writing — especially in regards to aspects such as composition, flow, and writing speed — by practicing in a medium such as a blog or a personal journal, where you can experiment with breaking the grammatical and stylistic rules (e.g., playing with punctuation, emphasis, choppy versus lengthy sentences, or how the choice of a synonym changes the tone). If you were an athlete, you’d be cross-training (swimmers lift weight and run, for instance); consider blogging or keeping a journal a form of cross-training for your main sport, which is technical writing. 

What’s flow?

Grammar and proper sentence structure should never come before good flow, good tempo, proper word choice, and whatever else it is that you need to get your main thing across, where in technical writing the “main thing” is your point, i.e., your main finding. In non-technical writing, the “main thing” may be to convey your own or your characters’ mood or emotions, for example.

So please don’t let yourself obsess about grammar, at least not in the initial  stages of writing; that’s something you worry about once it’s time to edit (more on it in Part 2). I will take a student’s draft with poor subject-verb agreement or repeated adjectives any day if the text flow is good and if they write in a logical and persuasive fashion.

What’s good flow in technical writing? You essentially want the reader to follow your train of thought, starting from certain easily grasped or widely accepted facts/laws/phenomena, through linked statements, to your “main thing.” Good flow means that a member of your audience can keep a relatively constant pace of reading, without having to pause or reread a cumbersome construction or to skip boring, trivial, or redundant paragraphs. Ideally, the only places your reader stops is where you want them to stop — where there’s a figure, or an equation, or a place in the text where something is being emphasized. Flow means you are holding the reader by the hand, so they walk comfortably beside you and have enough time to notice and enjoy the flowers; you should not be lagging behind the reader (means you are redundant or spend too much time on trivialities) and you should not be dragging them behind you (which means having to go back and reread hard-to-parse constructions). [Notice the redundancies in this paragraph? I could totally cut the last metaphor, for instance.]

In technical writing, good flow also means that you will recognize the places where your reader may ask “Wait a minute, what about this?” You will ask that question for them in the text, right at the point at which they would ask it themselves, then you will give them a satisfying answer right away. Good flow means your reader can be sort of lazy while enjoying the fruits of your intellectual labor.

What helps with good flow? As with all things writing, what helps most is reading. By reading a lot of technical papers, you will find those that you feel have been particularly well written. Pull them aside and dissect them, apply the scientific method: ask why you think this paper is so well written, what makes it so appealing? Try to figure out what the moving parts are (trust me, it’s way easier to do this for papers than for grant proposals; I am still convinced that good proposals must contain magical pixie dust).

Also, read your own writing. I like to reread my own papers and proposals (blog posts, too!), even after they are published or submitted. I read them many times during the writing and editing process, and these rewrites and rereads  help a lot with flow. Sometimes I think my students don’t read their papers at all before sending me drafts, because I can’t believe they would not have caught how constipated some sentences sounded if they had actually read the thing. Read your writing, people!

Be aware of your weaknesses; they need not be your undoing

If you are a non-native speaker of English, you might be self-conscious about your command of the language. My university has pretty good English-as-a-second language courses aimed at graduate students, and these do help correct gross errors in writing and speaking. But, you ultimately want to write at the level similar to that of a comparably educated native speaker, which means that you should not be happy with just not making egregious grammar mistakes, but rather continuously refine your spoken and written English.

I know that my big grammatical issues are the use of the definite and indefinite article as well as prepositions, because the information that is conveyed through articles and prepositions in English is conveyed through the use of cases (forms of nouns) in my mother tongue. For example, my Chinese students sometimes have issues with tenses and the use of gendered pronouns, again because the information about the when and the who is conveyed differently in Chinese. Students with different backgrounds have other systematic problems when they write, depending on the language of origin.

For me, articles and prepositions are issues in the sense that if write and don’t edit carefully, I might mess up, and I probably mess up in spoken English, especially if I am nervous or tired. Also, trying to talk and write as an educated native speaker means using idiomatic English; I like to experiment with idioms and even funny novel constructions, such as puns, which means I get things wrong. I have certainly flubbed an idiom (or a hundred) in my day, but you have to boldly use them in order to get better. Make a habit of paying attention to how native speakers use idioms; I always note when someone uses a construction that I probably would not have used or that I don’t really know the meaning of, and make sure to look it up later.

Finally, don’t assume, just because someone is a native speaker, that they are automatically a superior technical writer. I remember in grad school, I was getting ready to apply for faculty positions and had my two best American friends check my research and teaching statements. The two were not consistent about what they wanted fixed, not even at the level of whether a noun needed an article or not in front of it. So don’t that you suck just because you are not a native speaker; conversely, don’t assume you’re automatically golden if you are a native speaker (your non-native-speaking advisor will thank you).

Another thing, which holds for native and non-native speakers alike, is that people seem to have certain personal stylistic tendencies that are not ideal. For instance, I tend towards too many transition words, sentences that are too long, and I tend to repeat myself (I do that when I talk as well, say the same thing twice for sure; not only do I enjoy hearing the sound of my voice, apparently I like rereading my written words). Here, on the blog, I edit more or less thoroughly, depending on the mood and available time; some posts are better than others. Sometimes I leave the redundancies because I am lazy or because I liked a paragraph and just didn’t want to cut it — blogging is a hobby, after all, so I allow myself to get messy and self-indulgent. But, in technical writing, which is my professional mode of communication, I am very serious about cutting redundancies, removing the superfluous moreovers, therefores, and howevers,  and shortening sentences for maximal clarity.

All this is done at the editing stage, though, which means you already have a rough draft…

— continued here —

6 comments

  1. I explain to my students what flow is by giving an analogy: writing that has bad flow is like eating fish with small bones in. You know your have a tasty morsel in your mouth, but the bones are going to make eating it a painful experience!

  2. Good advice. I find for students writing in non-native language, reading really good papers (aloud!) and analyzing them is really helpful. This can be facilitated if the advisor or more senior student helps identify the “good” papers. (Citation classics aren’t always well written!)

  3. One piece of advice I have found to be very helpful is to copy and paste the text of your paper into google translate. If you select English it will read the paper out loud back to you. I think it’s MUCH easier to tell if your paper has good flow or not if you are hearing the words and sentences rather than reading them.

    Obviously this wouldn’t exactly help with the grammar portion, but it definitely helps with sentence flow and word choice. Plus, it gives you a chance to listen to the whole thing through, and maybe jot down different areas that you think may need a little more attention.

    Sorry this comment is so long, I just want other students to know how insanely helpful this is!

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