There are many reasons why we find ourselves caught up in a written work, but one major contributor is “flow.” In other words, the rhythm of a document can make a big difference in how that document gets read. A well-structured document creates forward momentum that carries the reader along, similar to rafting down a river. The work just carried them along from start to finish because it had this incredible flow that just kept them going.
Unfortunately, the opposite can happen too. A document with poor flow can be harder to read because it has a couple of impacts that make the reading experience choppier and rougher:
- The reader has to do work they shouldn’t have. If the content, arguments, or information is hard to follow – a symptom of poor flow – the reader must do mental work to puzzle together the information. That makes the act of reading laborious and energy-consuming. In all likelihood, the reader will abandon the document, likely before the author intends. Flow, by contrast, is effortless, because all the reader needs to do is absorb the information.
- The reader must pause frequently, effectively interrupting their own reading. Poor flow also means the document will be littered with unintentional break points. If nothing else, the reader will have to stop regularly to make sense of what they’re reading, if not go back and re-read previous sections.
Admittedly, sometimes an author wants the reader to do mental work while they’re reading, as with a textbook or other learning document. Typically, however, the writing itself should do the work for the reader.
To create flow, start by understanding the kind of information your readers will be looking for and where they will expect to find it. Think about how your intended reader would expect the document to be organized:
- General to specific?
- Specific to general?
- According to a standard template?
Beyond structure, think about document “density” too. When the reader is confronted by page after page of solid text, plowing through the material will be slow going. Instead, add elements that make it faster to read, including heading/subheadings, white space, and other reading cues.