Writing a good manuscript is bloody hard. I struggle with every manuscript I write. Mind you, this is not a struggle to get words on paper. I vomit words. No problem getting those on paper. The struggle, however, is more about getting the damn story thing right. Many people think it is as simple as an intro, materials and methods, results, and a discussion segment, and that’s it. Although technically, it is of course true that these are the main chunks that make up the manuscript. There is a bit more to it than that, and for a long time, I was pretty clueless about this. I had been writing manuscripts for about two or three years when my PhD supervisor gave me feedback on – I think – my second PhD manuscript, or maybe the third? I don’t know. He was always pretty harsh about his feedback, and he would often say things were ‘wrong, I think’, without giving me direction on how to improve them. Don’t get me wrong, he also often gave a genius spin to manuscripts, data visualization and interpretation, but it’s always the strange comments that make you go ‘what the fuck am I supposed to do with this’, that stick with you. So with one of these ‘this is wrong’ feedbacks in the sidelines, I decided to just confront him with it and ask him what was so wrong about it. As always, things are not as bad as they seem.
What followed may have been the most important learning moment in my PhD – or even academic trajectory – to date. There was a good reason why he could not really put to words what was wrong about the particular piece that he commented on. It was not technically wrong. It just felt wrong to him. As in, it did not flow properly. When I talked to him about why it was wrong, that was more or less what he said. The story did not flow well. Of course this is not exactly direct advice, but before this comment I had never thought about flow of the story in manuscripts. I just wrote down everything I could think of related to the subject. If it was ever coherent, it was probably by chance, but not because I aimed for it. It was only after this comment that I started actively pursuing ‘flow’.
Nobody ever explained to me what flow really is, or what it should feel or look like. I naturally imagined story flow as the flow of a river, where the water quite naturally flows from higher to lower elevation. It never flows uphill. However, there are particular things, or obstacles, that can break up the flow, or bend it in very unnatural positions. Think of a large rock, or a dam, that can severely obstruct water flow in a river system. Now, if you consider your manuscript, or your story, to be similarly fluid, how could that help you? First, order. You don’t want to push your story uphill. A story should roll downhill. It might sound cliché but this really is as simple as starting broadly with introduction of the general subject, while than narrowing down to more specific subjects, whose order should follow a logical order. This could be done in various ways, for instance chronologically, following the order of hypotheses, but also in order of importance. It depends largely on the potential impact and novelty of the findings, and related to that, the journal you aim to submit to. Second, obstacles. Obstacles can be either small or large, like the rock or dam in the river analogy. They could be single sentences in your story, or entire paragraphs or segments. These days I regularly review papers (usually 1-3 per month), and it happens so often that I think ‘what the hell is this sentence doing here?’ Sometimes a sentence that is poorly formulated, placed in the wrong location, or even completely irrelevant to the study (or story) can break up the flow like a rock breaks up the flow of the river. Make sure your sentences logically follow up on each other. Like in the rock-river analogy, these minor obstacles are often relatively harmless, and only cause a temporal frown in your readers, that quickly subsides when they continue. Much more damaging to the flow of a story are complete sections that are irrelevant, or placed in the wrong location. Like dams in rivers, they could totally send the story flow in a different direction, often only to do it again later in the text to correct the flow. Try not to dam the natural flow of your story. Do all your paragraphs make logical sense? I have found that quite often I could cut entire paragraphs from my own manuscripts without ANY loss of story or message. I often notice the same in other people’s work as well. Given that we’re always restricted by word counts (in journals), it doesn’t hurt to cut the crap, so I often suggest just that.
In the past couple of weeks, I have marked and corrected many many student reports, and although the writing styles always differ in quality, there was evidently one thing that many (especially younger generation) students often did not consider. Flow. Creating flow is hard to teach, but a lack of it is easy to point out. I hope this helps my students get familiar with the idea of flow. Try to take your reader on a little boat trip on the river that is your story. Good flow can make a huge difference in how you write (and how you read). Just knowing about the concept is enough to develop your own version of it. It won’t make writing easy, but it might make it a more enjoyable ride. There is no right or wrong – as long as it flows!