Toward a Holistic Look at Flow

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Toward a Holistic Look at Flow

文 / 張晨 (本中心教師)

 

Flow, in a nutshell, is the way a text is organized, and is emphasized in most writing textbooks as an element any good piece of writing should have. There is good reason for this. Writing, especially for academic purposes, requires not only a strong and knowledgeable discourse, but also a way to successfully communicate it. This common goal provides justification both for valuing flow and, from a teacher’s perspective, for valuing teaching it. This article introduces an alternative to understanding and employing “flow” that may prove more helpful than one that merely identifies it with “coherence.”

 

It is customary for many to equate flow with coherence. Students, particularly those who are novice writers, are repeatedly told to achieve coherence — via techniques like repeating key words and using synonyms, pronouns, and transition signals — in their writing. However, the concept of coherence has since Halliday and Hasan (1976) incorporated elements that, to a greater or lesser degree, break away from its linguistic tradition. In a narrow sense, coherence refers to the state in which sentences in any portion of a text are linked in a way that allows the reader to understand it. In a broad sense — a sense many authors believe the term should now encompass — it is concerned not only with the semantic access to the text, but also with the effectiveness of its overall design (Roen 1996; Weiser 1996; Clark 2006).

 

These two senses of coherence point to distinct purposes to be satisfied in writing. One problem with using coherence the way many students do, it seems, is that they may be misled into thinking that when key words, synonyms, or transition signals are used, coherence is in place, whether in the narrow or broad sense. This is in fact understandable when we see, for example, Alice Oshima and Ann Hogue (2006) point out that among the “ways to achieve coherence” are “repeat[ing] key nouns,” “us[ing] consistent pronouns,” and “us[ing] transition signals to link ideas” (22). However, what these techniques actually achieve is what is known as “cohesion” — a syntactic property that is neither sufficient nor necessary for coherence to obtain. While using those cohesive ties in one’s writing is often helpful, one risk on the flip side of this utility is negligence of whether the text is really “coherent.” A primary reason for this lies exactly in the intricacies of this term. There is, first, a need to distinguish between coherence and cohesion. In fact, that the two words are both from Latin cohaes (“to cling”) and look similar has made some mistake one for the other, or suppose that they carry interchangeable meanings, or attempt to end the confusion by a replacement of one word (e.g., “coherence”) with another (e.g., “internal cohesion”) that is not of much help. There is, further, a substantive distinction between the “local” and “global” senses of coherence, each of which conveys something integral to an effective piece of writing.

 

To ease complications, this is where “flow,” a less theory-laden term, may come in. Presumably, for an essay to be truly smooth, it should achieve not only a “flow of sentences” but also a “flow of thoughts.” Steering from this view, this article draws a distinction between an “outer flow” and an “inner flow.” When a text has an outer flow, the sentences are expressed and arranged in ways that make it easy for readers to understand what the author wants to say. When a text has an inner flow, it fulfills three conditions: (1) that it is unified and well-developed; (2) that its content is well-organized; and (3) that it does not commit any logical fallacies. This distinction has two important advantages. First, it preserves the fundamental elements of the two senses of coherence while self-expressing a need for recognition of a contrast. Second, it complements what an essay with genuinely smooth flow would entail. Given that unity and logicality mirror one’s flow of thoughts, for instance, they are of an “inner” relevance even if typically dissociated with coherence.

 

Achieving an inner flow does not by itself yield an outer flow, or vice versa. While a smooth essay has to achieve both, the inner flow should take precedence as it lays the groundwork. The following passages illustrate this priority:

  1. One difference among the world’s seas and oceans is that the salinity varies in different climate zones. The Baltic Sea in northern Europe is only one-fourth as salty as the Red Sea in the Middle East. There are reasons for this. In warm climates, water evaporates rapidly. The concentration of salt is greater. The surrounding land is dry and does not contribute much freshwater to dilute the salty seawater. In cold climate zones, water evaporates slowly. The runoff created by melting snow adds a considerable amount of freshwater to dilute the saline seawater.
  2. One difference among the world’s seas and oceans is that the salinity varies in different climate zones. For example, the Baltic Sea in northern Europe is only one-fourth as salty as the Red Sea in the Middle East. There are reasons for this. First, in warm climates, water evaporates rapidly; therefore, the concentration of salt is greater. Second, the surrounding land is dry, thereby contributing little freshwater to dilute the salty seawater. In cold climate zones, on the other hand, water evaporates slowly. Furthermore, the runoff created by melting snow adds a considerable amount of freshwater to dilute the saline seawater. (Oshima and Hogue, 2006)

 

We find paragraph B smoother than paragraph A despite their apparent similarity, but we do not find A hard to follow. The reason is that A has achieved as much an inner flow as B has. What makes B smoother is an improved outer flow — with the addition of appropriate transition signals — that allows the reader to grasp the message more easily.

 

Problems associated with the assumption that the use of transition signals or other cohesive ties alone creates flow may come from reversing the priority order at issue. This reversion obscures the extent to which the inner flow touches on something of higher order and irreplaceable. Take for example the excerpt of a student’s essay:

 

Gay couples are as capable and loving parents as heterosexuals. First, there should be no discrimination against gay parents. They can love children just as much as heterosexual couples can; as a result, a couple’s being gay does not mean that they cannot be good parents. Furthermore, in some cases gay couples make better parents because they are more caring and sensitive compared to heterosexuals… Finally, no matter what a couple’s sexual orientation is, if they genuinely want to give children a good life, they could be competent parents.

 

The topic was regarding whether same-sex couples should be allowed to parent a child. The author addressed one reason why they should, captured mainly in the first sentence — in this case the topic sentence (TS). The major problem with this paragraph is that the TS is left undeveloped. The author, however, wrote as if it were supported, and this was attempted with the aid of a bunch of transition signals. On the surface they appear to be linking the sentences, but in fact almost none of them comes out effective as the key step to smoothing the inner flow has been disregarded.

 

Take a look at the first signal word “first.” It is hard to see how the sentence that follows it endorses the TS. It would serve better either as a conclusion for which the TS may lend support, or as another subtopic that backs up the author’s position. The two clauses that constitute the third sentence may appear to cohere via the phrasal connector “as a result,” but the “result” turns out to be precocious at that juncture due to its lack of adequate support, which can hardly be provided by the former clause as it is a mere repetition of the TS. The next sentence begs the question, again, by assuming the TS to be true. The last sentence is suitable neither as a final supporting point nor as a concluding remark with a “finally.” Prioritizing the inner flow, as is now reasonable to conclude, makes it easier to devise an outer flow, but the reverse does not hold.

 

In a sense, “teaching” flow is a futile task. Every writer has a particular way of telling stories, and given the plethora of individual logics that may result, it is simply hopeless to try to decode them in a systematic and principled manner, and keying them into useful rules is even harder to pull off. However, this line of thought merely illuminates the fact that what would be sufficient, individually or jointly, to produce smooth flows cannot possibly be exhausted. It does not show that nothing can be done to improve them one way or another. The progress would largely depend on a set of conditions necessary for the flow to emerge. These conditions, as may be conceivable, derive from the three elements that characterize the inner flow. They are: (1) that supports for the author’s view are unified, specific, and adequate; (2) that the organization is clear to such an extent that the reader would be able to outline the text for the author; and (3) that the “author’s logic” can withstand logical scrutiny. Gaining mastery of these core conditions of flow would help novice writers sort out their own path of logic to develop their individual ways of writing.

 

References:

  1. Clark, Roy Peter (2006): Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer. Little, Brown and Company.
  2. Halliday, M.A.K. and Ruqayia Hasan (1976): Cohesion in English. London: Longman.
  3. Oshima, Alice and Ann Hogue (2006): Writing Academic English (4th Edition). Pearson Longman.
  4. Roen, Duane H. “Coherence.” Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition: Communication from Ancient Times to the Information Age, ed. by Theresa Enos (1996). Taylor & Francis.
  5. Weiser, Irwin. “Linguistics.” Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition: Communication from Ancient Times to the Information Age, ed. by Theresa Enos (1996). Taylor & Francis.

 

臺大寫作教學中心電子報No. 003[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]