In this blog post, we’ll look at how to organise and craft your writing in such a way that your audience can’t help but read to the end.
Have you ever started reading something, and realised you can’t stop? When you can’t put down a book, or can’t stop scrolling an article on your phone?
There are many elements that contribute to this – a great story, compelling ‘characters’, and vivid details all help hugely.
Another aspect of great writing that you can’t put down is that it feels easy to read. It’s logical, it guides you through, and the path from start to finish is clear. The writing flows.
Yet, the problem I see in a lot of writing is that it feels like a slog to read. This is a problem for any writer, but charities will feel the impact of this more keenly. It doesn’t matter if it’s an uplifting story, exciting news, or an urgent issue. If it’s difficult to read, your audience will switch off, and never hear about the important things you’ve got to say.
So how do you make your writing flow? First of all, you need to identify what’s wrong.
How to tell if your writing isn’t flowing right
Step one: sleep on it. Leave your first draft for at least a day (a crucial part of editing your own writing).
Then, ideally, have someone else check it for you. Maybe a friendly colleague who doesn’t know anything about the subject. If that’s not possible, put on your imaginary “editor” hat and get some perspective for yourself. Either way, ask yourself (or your friendly colleague) the following questions:
- Too fast? Does it feel like some parts are moving too fast? Like you need to expand on them a little bit more?
- Too slow? Or conversely, is there anywhere in your writing slows down? Maybe where it goes into too much detail?
- Bored? Do you feel like it’s a bit of slog to read? Like you want to hurry up and skip to the end (or just abandon it halfway through).
- Confused? Does it make sense? Or does it jump around from place to place? Do you find yourself having to re-read passages to get to grip?
If you’re answering ‘yes’ to any of the above you might have a problem with the flow of your writing.
There are two stages to fixing this. First, you’ll need to look at the big picture, and then you can move on to the details.
How to fix – big picture stuff
Figure out the ‘story’ of your piece.
If your writing isn’t ‘flowing’, then its likely the ‘story’ of your piece (or some sort of logical progression) isn’t coming through very well. The trick is to identify what that story is and then restructure your writing to fit that story.
To find the ‘story’, try one of the following:
- Summarise the piece in three sentences (if it ends up being four or five, that’s ok – the point is to make it brief).
- What is the one ‘take-home’ message you want to get across? If the reader forgets everything else, what’s the one thing you want them to remember?
- Try and write your piece within the ABT framework (popularised by Randy Olson). It starts with statements that you could join together with AND, which describe the status quo. BUT then something comes along which changes the direction, or challenges this status quo. THEREFORE you can explain how things could be different.
Next, figure out how your paragraphs fit within that story.
At this stage, focus on the overall idea that the paragraph is putting forward. Don’t focus on the exact words contained in that paragraph for now (we’ll come back to the words later).
To help with this, I’d suggest ‘labelling’ your paragraphs with the idea it’s getting across. Write comments in the margin (or just write in-line with a different colour), summarise in a few words what each paragraph is about.
Then look at the labels and think about the following:
- Similar to how I write a lay summary, sometimes it’s easiest to work from the end. What’s the overall conclusion that your reader should come to? What’s the action that you’d like them to take? Think about your destination, and then work backwards to fit in the gaps of what the reader needs to know/understand to get them to that destination – all the way back to the beginning.
- Look at the paragraphs one by one, and ask: “Is this paragraph in the right place?” Does the idea of one paragraph lead onto the idea of the next? If not, move it to somewhere where it fits better.
- “Is this paragraph helping?” Is it getting people to the final destination, or is it a diversion? If it’s not helping, cut.
- “Is this necessary?” e.g., do you need to explain five policies for combatting climate change, or would three do? (Or maybe just one really good one?) Get to the point quickly, make it as strongly as possible, and then move on.
- Once you’re finished, do you have any paragraphs left over without a natural home? If so, this suggests they’re not important, so cut. (If this feels painful, copy and paste to a separate document so you can come back to them, ‘just in case’).
- Re-read and repeat, as necessary.
Hopefully, by this stage, you should have something that feels like it flows a bit better, but perhaps it is still a bit clunky in places.
You’ve spent time on the overall structure and the ordering of your paragraphs or sections, now’s the time to look in more detail at the words themselves.
How to fix – smaller details
The following suggestions all have something in common: they act like little ‘signposts’ to point people in the right direction, and keep your audience reading to the next paragraph.
Say there’s a bit in your piece where you share three illustrative examples. You can write that you have three examples to share, and begin the following paragraphs with words like “firstly”, “secondly”, and “thirdly” (or “next” and “finally”). It helps the flow because you’re giving people a heads up of what’s coming and then guide them through each of the examples. (You could of course use a numbered list, but it’s not always an elegant solution.)
Start the next paragraph where the previous one finished
It sounds obvious, but if the idea of one paragraph naturally leads onto the next, then make that link explicitly in your writing.
Look at the last sentence of a paragraph, and then the first sentence of the next paragraph. How do these two sentences link together? Is there a natural train of thought that goes between them?
Examples: Take a look at these two paragraphs from a blog from The Health Foundation on the social determinants of health.
“However, throughout our conversations, it became clear that while a lot of people ‘get’ the social determinants of health, there is still a lack of understanding among some (outside of public health) and a lack of commitment to take action across the spectrum of society.
This is partly because not everyone is aware that what they do has an impact on people’s health and on health inequalities. Why should they be? When a transport planner is thinking about how they can connect a deprived community to a town centre, jobs and services, they may not necessarily be aware of the benefits that this will generate for people’s health.”
‘This’ in “This is partly because not everyone is aware….” refers to the ‘lack of understanding’ and a ‘lack of commitment’ in the previous sentence. The first sentence of the second paragraph picks up where the last one leaves.
A poorer way to link these paragraphs would be:
“… while a lot of people ‘get’ the social determinants of health, there is still a lack of understanding among some (outside of public health) and a lack of commitment to take action across the spectrum of society.
Not everyone in local government is aware that what they do has an impact on people’s health and on health inequalities. Why should they be? When a transport planner is thinking…”
It’s ok, but the “Not everyone in local government…” doesn’t really pick up from where the previous paragraph left off.
Another example is from a post on Alcohol Change UK’s blog about alcohol advertising in sport
“Sport just hasn’t been the same for a while, has it? It’s supposed to be noisy and crowded and…fun. For quite some time now, it’s all been a bit too quiet. Footballers have had no one in the stands to entertain (or enrage) with their post-goal celebrations. Jockeys have raced past the finishing post accompanied only by the dull thud of hooves on turf. Cricketers have hit sixes into the top row with no eager spectators trying to catch them.
But even if crowds have been a bit thin on the ground, one thing that didn’t disappear from sporting events was alcohol. There may have been no one pitch-side or track-side supping pints or quaffing rosé, but there were still plenty of punters to advertise to at home on the sofa; and plenty of digital channels for teams to plug their drinks partnerships on. Nowhere is this more striking than in the world of football.”
See the link? The first paragraph talks about the lack of crowds at sport events during the pandemic. Then the second paragraph talks about how alcohol advertising has still reached sports fans at home. The last bit of first sentence of the second paragraph (“…one thing that didn’t disappear from sporting events was alcohol.”) is the link between the two ideas.
(Also notice the last sentence of the second paragraph switches subject to talk specifically about football. This pre-empts the following paragraph (not shown here) about alcohol sponsorship in football. Having that last sentence switch subject like that helps to move people along to the next paragraph, like a subtle mini-cliffhanger.)
Or in this blog from Shelter about what Michael Gove’s priorities should be to end the housing emergency:
“In the current Affordable Homes Programme (the main funding scheme outside of contribution from planning), you would need to earn twice the average national household income to keep up payments for so-called ‘affordable’ home ownership schemes. Yet it is these tenures that make up the majority of the housing that the AHP provides. That is as wasteful as it is immoral – and could be changed straight away.
Another quick fix would be something that would let government funding deliver more homes, more affordably. This would be by announcing the next 10 years of the AHP now, rather than waiting until 2025/6 to announce the next tranche of funding…”
“Another quick fix…” links nicely with “…could be changed straight away” from the previous paragraph. It brings people through from one idea to the next.
Another more subtle way to link paragraphs is to use what I call ‘mirror words’ – use the same word (or variations of it) in the first sentence of the next paragraph, as the last sentence in the previous paragraph.
As an example, take the opening of President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (because, why not?):
“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.“
The word “dedicate” is used in one paragraph and is repeated in the next. “Consecrate” is also repeated between two sentences (as is “nation” and “field” earlier on).
Beware that mirror words need to be used carefully and sparingly. It is easy to overdo it and sound repetitive.