Flow and Eddy

I like easy puzzles. My favorite puzzle, in fact, has only one piece.

In a recent conversation with other writing instructors, I raised the question of why so many students come into the Writing Center asking for help with the flow of their writing: “Does my paper flow?” “Do my paragraphs flow?” It’s an understandable concern, I suppose, suggesting a desire to overcome awkwardness or unevenness. The metaphor of flow, like similar physical metaphors such as polish or refine, suggests a removal of obstacles or extraneous matter, impurities that may clog or blemish or just generally disturb the reader’s movement through this now flowing text. Flow operates on the border between style and organization, at the places where the components of this text are groomed or grooved or smoothed over so that no rough edges are visible. Flow is matching the belt to the shoes, the hat with the gloves.

But, of course, there is so much more to writing than aiding or pleasing readers. And, when I raised the point, all the teachers in the room agreed that they did not use flow in talking about writing, that the word suggests too much of an emphasis on cosmetics or utility. If students are privileging flow—and surely they are getting this emphasis from somewhere—it is probably because previous teachers have stressed the importance of clean and concise prose. But what we keep seeing is student writers who write defensively and conservatively, closing down avenues and corridors for thinking because they cannot find adequate “transitions” (a reified non-term in so many ways) between parts of a paper. All too often, flow suggests a damping down of complexity or heteroglossia. Although flow has a sure connotation of natural, organic qualities—who wouldn’t want prose to flow like a river—it has become, too, a key term in the lexicon of capitalist efficiency (as in cash flow and revenue streams). My concern is that emphasizing flow can mean prizing the outcome of the writing process over the writing itself. (Alas, such husk/kernel dialectics raise even bigger questions, but I’ll save that for another day.)

Let’s put it this way: Given a choice, I would prefer student writing that looks more like a Rube Goldberg machine than a Battlebot. Especially since I am usually concerned with writing that happens early in a student’s academic career (at the first-year level), I emphasize writing as contraption or contrivance, a posing of ideas (as in a model’s momentary and changing poses) rather than entrenchment of position. If the resulting work has a less streamlined flow—with visible sutures like Frankenstein’s creation—its deferral of smoothness is at least something to admire.