Flow: sentences

A paragraph is an arrangement of sentences -- an arrangement of simple ideas. We call the movement from one simple idea to the next the flow, and the writer is responsible for managing the movement from sentence to sentence.

Consider the following paragraph:

The original Danelectro factory built guitars until 1969. They were inexpensive instruments sold through department stores across North America. Players of Danelectro guitars include Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, and J. J. Cale. Original Danos, as they're casually called, are now sought-after, partly because of the famous guitarists known to have use them, and partly because they were so cheaply made that many haven't survived intact to present day.

This paragraph is full of simple ideas, but the ideas, though clearly related, seem disconnected. It reads more like a list of facts than a flow of sentences. Consider the relationship between the second and third sentences: the fact that Danelectro produced inexpensive instruments seems utterly disconnected from who was known to play them. This is poor flow.

However, the final sentence gives us some idea of how these facts might connect: because they were somewhat flimsy in their original construction, many have not survived intact. Combine this with the idea that some notable guitarists played them, and we might call them collectable.

Aha! That's the complex idea: original Danelectros are collectable because 1) few survived the decades since they stopped production; 2) notable musicians played them. With that, we can rearrange the paragraph to help the ideas flow better.

Original Danelectro guitars have become collectable in recent years. They were only produced until 1969, and they were famously used by some of that generations most notable guitarists. Since they were aimed at a lower-end, department store market in North America, and therefore made with inexpensive materials, many have not survived intact to present day. Given this, they are now quite sought-after by enthusiasts.

Now the ideas flow well. We open and close the paragraph with the idea that original Danelectros are collectable. After the opening, we give a couple of basic facts about the guitars, Then, we connect those facts into a reason to consider them collectable. The simple ideas we merely listed in the original paragraph are now arranged in such a way that the more complex idea -- their collectability -- arises from the simple ideas. They're not collectable just because they were only made until 1969. They're not collectable just because certain well-known guitarists used them. They're not collectable because they're made of inexpensive materials. They're collectable for all these reasons combined, and this rewritten paragraph shows the connection between the ideas.

Everything was there in the original paragraph, but the flow from one idea to the next needed work.

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Sometimes you'll find something missing between two ideas, and that missing thing is what we often call an assumption. Sensitivity to context will help you determine whether the audience needs you to say more from one step to the next, as teachers and coaches must often consider.

Let's consider a simple example:

Usually we walk to school, but it's rain this morning and Charlie doesn't want his art project to get wet. Figuring we'll drive instead of dashing through the downpour, I told Charlie we won't be the only ones with this idea, so we better leave soon.

In this case, if you've ever tried to drive a kid to school on a rainy day, you'll likely know that the streets tend to be jammed with lines of cars all trying to do the same. Here I'm assuming Charlie will know that lots of people might drive, there will be a jam of cars, and so we should allow for extra time. I hadn't stated the reason for leaving soon, which means I assumed the connection between the fact that it was raining and the idea that we should get a move on.

Sometimes, unstated reasons work perfectly well in a paragraph. As always, this depends on the audience and the context. For example, if I were writing a newsletter for parents new to the school, I might state this assumption clearly; they may not have experienced the crush of cars that rainy days bring. On the other hand, if I were writing a quick note to parents of older students, it would seem fair to assume they've witnessed or experienced first-hand a rainy day car queue. No need to state the obvious.

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Here we've addressed two ways to consider the flow of a paragraph. First, consider whether you have presented the ideas in an order that makes sense. Do the sentences seem to follow one another, or do they seem disconnected? Second, consider whether you have made assumptions, and then whether you need to state those assumptions clearly.

In the next section we'll discuss the subtle skill of knowing when you've expressed an idea sufficiently clearly that you can now move on to the next paragraph. It turns out, "paragraphing" involves some nuanced thinking about your topic and presentation. Keep this in mind as we proceed.
Last modified: Monday, 16 July 2018, 10:48 PM