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WriteCast Episode 18: Student Q&A on Flow, Sentence Length, and Using “I” in Academic Writing

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© Walden University Writing Center 2015

 

[Introduction music]

 

BETH: Welcome to WriteCast: A Casual Conversation for Serious Writers.

I’m Beth Nastachowski, a writing instructor and the coordinator of webinar instruction at the Walden University Writing Center. If you’re a Walden student and you’ve attended one of our webinars or residencies, we may have met or you might recognize my voice.

I’m sad to report that Nik, WriteCast’s regular co-host, has taken an opportunity beyond Walden. We’re really sad to say goodbye and we’ll definitely miss him on the podcast, but we’re also very excited for him and his new opportunity.

Brittany, our other co-host, is currently on maternity leave, so I will be filling in for her during the next few months.

Today, we’re also trying something new on the podcast—I’m going to answer some questions that you, our listeners, submitted to us online. So, let’s get started! Here's our first question:

 

STUDENT: How do you ensure the smooth flow of ideas from one paragraph to the next? Thank you.

 

BETH: This is a great question, because the term “flow” is a little general. Many aspects of writing influence flow, both at the individual sentence level, but also at the paragraph level. To help us break down what creates flow, I'd like to talk about 4 key writing aspects topic sentences, transitions, clear and concise wording, and varied wording and sentence structure.

First, we'll start with topic sentences, which help with flow at the paragraph level. If you think of each paragraph like a mini essay, the topic sentence is like the mini thesis for or introduction for the paragraph. It should tell readers the focus or the topic of the paragraph right at the beginning. Topic sentences are your own ideas and words, and they generally start at the beginning of a paragraph. You can also think of topic sentences like a road map for the paragraph—they help to direct your reader through the evidence and analysis in the rest of the paragraph. So, instead of starting paragraphs with a specific piece of evidence, a statistic, a quote, or even a specific point of analysis or idea, create a sentence of your own that gives the reader an overview of all the main points and information you discuss in that paragraph.

Okay, so next are transitions, which help create flow at both the paragraph level and between sentences. Transitions create flow by showing your reader how ideas and sentences are connected--their relationship. You can create transitions by using transitional words like "additionally" or "however," and these signify the relationship to the previous ideas. You can also repeat key terms or phrases between sentences. Imagine transitions like bridges—they help connect the previous and the upcoming sentences.

Another part of sentence-level flow is clear, concise wording. Clear and concise wording is important so that readers don’t get stuck in complicated language or sentence structures. If a reader has to stop and puzzle out what’s going on in the sentence, that interrupts the reading experience. Instead, focus on presenting ideas and information in as concise and straightforward a manner as possible. One way to check for clear, concise wording is to try reading your writing out loud. If you find it difficult to read a sentence out loud, your reader will probably find it difficult to read, too.

The last component of flow is to vary wording and sentence structure. Too much repetition in wording or in sentence structure can also interrupt your flow, because it sticks out to readers—it becomes what they notice and focus on, and it distracts readers from your ideas. For example, you're likely going to have a few keywords or key phrases that you’ll need to repeat throughout the paper—which also helps create transitions, as we talked about a minute ago. However, you want to avoid starting sentences in the same way over and over again. You also want to mix up the length of your sentences, using both short and long sentences. Another tip is to look at the beginning of each paragraph—are you using the same phrases to start every paragraph? If so, you’ll want to revise them so they are not all the same.

That's an overview of the aspects of writing that you can focus on to create "flow." However, as I said, flow is kind of a general idea—it can mean different things to different writers, because so many pieces of writing influence flow. Repeated or many grammatical mistakes in your writing also can interrupt the flow, for example. Or, if you don’t present your information in a logical order, that definitely interrupts the flow as well. However, think about topic sentences, transitions, clear and concise language, and variation in your sentences which will help strengthen the flow in your writing.

Thanks for that question! Here’s another great question:

 

STUDENT: The length of a sentence: One person says, with correct punctuation, 21 words is okay, and 40 words is not, and vice versa. So, it's confusing for the student. Can't find anything on a sentence length. Thanks very much, bye.

 

BETH: Some teachers and some writers have pretty set ideas or rules on how long a sentence should be and how many words it can include. Here at the Writing Center, though, we don’t put a word count on sentence length and the APA style manual doesn’t, either. A sentence that has 21 words might have some grammatical errors or a convoluted structure, so it's difficult to understand, while the 40-word sentence might be clearly phrased or structured more straightforwardly. It all depends. The bottom line is that you want to (a) ensure clear, concise, and grammatically correct sentences and (b) vary your sentence length and structure. If you find that you use a lot of long sentences, focus less on limiting all of your sentences to a certain word count and more on ensuring clear phrasing and varying your sentence structure.

Now, the implied part of that question is how to revise for sentence length. First, I'd say that writing habits, like using long sentences, can be tough to break. So I suggest you focus on revising for length on second and subsequent drafts after you've already gotten your ideas down on paper. That way, revising for length doesn't interrupt your actual writing. One other tip we have is to read your work out loud. I just talked about this technique helping to improve with flow, and it also helps with sentence structure. If you find yourself needing to reread sentences for clarity or stop and pause several times to catch your breath, that may show you where you should make the sentence more concise and perhaps shorter.

I understand the impulse to look for a magic word count telling you if a sentence is too short or too long—but on the other hand, not having such a rule gives you, as the writer, more freedom to decide the appropriate length of a sentence both on its own and also in terms of its relationship to the sentences around it.

Alright, thanks so much for that question! Here's our last question:

 

STUDENT: Hey guys, this is David. You know, a lot has been said over the years about, in academic writing, not using first person, but you know, that's not always a good idea. Can you guys kind of tell us when it is okay to use "I" and "me"? It really would help a lot to know that that's okay. So, thanks, guys.

 

BETH: The use of first person--this is another great question because it can often be misunderstood, or directions about when to use "I" can be misunderstood. Oftentimes as students in high school or even sometimes in early college courses, we're taught not to use the first person, meaning "I" or "me," in our writing because it doesn't sound academic. Now, that certainly can be true, but it's more accurate to say that we should only use "I" in academic writing in certain situations. So, I like to talk about the appropriate use of "I" in academic writing. I'm going to start by talking about when it is okay to use "I" and then I'll talk a little bit about the times when it's not quite as acceptable to use "I". So, in academic writing, it's always useful to use "I" when you're talking about actions you take. This is particularly relevant for students who are talking about a study or a project that they are implementing. An example of this would be maybe if you're talking about surveys that you have sent out to participants. Rather than saying "the researcher sent out the surveys," we would want to say something like "I sent out the surveys." So, instead of saying "the researcher," we're actually referring to ourselves using the first person, saying "I". And using "I" in this way helps clarify actions that you take. If a reader is approaching your writing and they see the phrase "the researcher," they may not know who that researcher is or what researcher you were referring to. It could be yourself or it could be another researcher you're working with or a researcher that you read about. So, rather than referring to yourself in that third person, using "I" helps clarify actions that you have taken.

The same approach applies to when you're talking about situations in your work life, for example, as well. At Walden, we really emphasize that everything you should be learning should be practical and should be able to be applied to what you're doing in your professional life as well. So, if you are writing a paper about maybe your workplace--so, for example, if you're a nurse, and you're talking about the hospital you work in, and a program that you implemented or worked in--then it's really helpful to use "I" in those situations as well because you're clarifying that this is a situation or an experience that has happened to you personally. So those are the ways that "I" is really useful, and APA actually encourages students to use "I" in those ways rather than referring to themselves in the third person.

Now, one way that using "I" is not appropriate is when you're talking about things that you think or you believe. So, phrases like "I think that dark chocolate is amazing"--well, it's very true that I think that that statement is true, but using "I" in that statement isn't actually necessary. Instead, I can actually just delete the first part of that sentence and state, "Dark chocolate is amazing." That "I" portion that I've deleted is actually implied in that sentence. So, using "I" to say "I think" or "I believe" statements isn't necessary in academic writing and does make the tone sound a bit more informal. So those are the two sort of considerations when using "I"--you want to make sure to use it appropriately; you want to use it to talk about your situation or things that you have done. But avoid using "I" to talk about your thoughts or beliefs.

Thanks so much for listening and for submitting your questions to us, everyone. We’re still gathering questions if you’d like to send us yours. Simply visit our blog, which is waldenwritingcenter.blogspot.com.

Tune in March 1st for our next episode!

 

WriteCast is a production of the Walden University Writing Center. This episode was produced by Beth Nastachowski and Anne Shell.