It’s one of my most common comments when I edit or critique another writer’s work: “Flow’s off here. Rephrase.”
I worry sometimes that I’m being too vague, but—and maybe it’s the ADHD—I’m super-sensitive to flow problems when I read.
What do I mean by flow? Flow is basically the reader’s momentum throughout the piece of writing. When it’s good, readers don’t have to go back and reread parts of the story or find themselves going “huh?” While they may cringe at events or emotions portrayed in a good story, they won’t be cringing at the wording. They won’t be tripping over the prose—not if you, as the writer, learn to master the flow.
Here are some common flow issues to keep in mind as you edit your manuscripts, along with ways you can tackle them to improve the flow of your work.
Awkward wording—Sometimes the words you put together just don’t sound right. Maybe an unintended double-entendre comes into play or words that are meant to be serious end up rhyming or alliterated. Splitting verbs or ordering words in a confusing way will give the readers pause.
One of the best ways to catch awkward prose is by reading your manuscript to yourself—here’s the key—OUT LOUD. When you find yourself tripping over your own tongue, that’s a clue something needs to be reworked.
Clarity—A lack of clarity is what causes the “huh?” factor in literary work. Every so often the explanations and descriptions that make so much sense in our own heads don’t translate clearly on to the page. This happens to everyone, because we all have experiences and ways of thinking that no one else shares.
Clarity is a tough issue for a writer to tackle on their own. Putting the book away for a long while before editing may help you catch some, but most likely will slip by you even then. This is where your beta-readers and critique partners are indispensable. Asking them to keep it in mind as they read will alert you to problem areas and help you prevent reader confusion at publication time.
Pacing—The pace of the prose in your story should fit with the mood of the scenes you’re writing. A conflict between the two can cause a sort of dissonance for the readers that will make them struggle to move forward in your story. If you wrote a suspenseful or tension-filled scene, but you used long paragraphs of description and big chunks of dialogue, you’ll create major pace confusion. The same if you’re attempting a relaxed or peaceful mood, and your paragraphs are short, description is lacking, and dialogue is clipped.
As you edit, ask yourself if the pacing of the prose matches the mood of the scene. An easy way to tell is that tense or action-packed scenes should have a lot of white space on the pages, where the chilled-out bits of story will have a greater proportion of words.
Good flow is important, because it keeps readers reading happily and finishing quickly. If the flow of your prose is rough, it’s like the reader’s equivalent of driving on a road full of potholes. Drivers, if they can, will dodge potholes or avoid crumbling streets.
As a writer, the last thing you want to do is give your readers excuses to stop reading your book.