Whenever I browse discussion groups dedicated to copywriting, I’m amazed to see the same kinds of questions over and over again.
“What are the best words to convey ‘x’?”
“How can I write more quickly?”
“What tactics and techniques should I use to be more persuasive?”
There’s nothing wrong with these questions. A lot of them address very important issues… And in fact, if you DON’T ask these kinds of questions AT ALL, you’re likely hurting your results.
Nevertheless I do find that many copywriters have a bias in favor of “concrete” advice that can be implemented quickly, over “general” strategies that pay dividends in the long run. There’s nothing wrong with learning tactics that you can implement quickly. But in the long run it pays to immerse yourself in and familiarize yourself with the timeless principles that all writing strategies spring out from. One of these “general” principles that I find overlooked frequently is the idea of “flow.”
What Is Flow?
“Flow” in writing is one of those things that everybody knows when they see it, but most people find hard to define.
And in fact… There are as many acceptable definitions of the term as there are copywriters in the world.
But I’ll offer a general definition that I think most writers would agree on:
“FLOW is the quality you notice when every sentence in a piece of writing makes you want to read the next one.”
Like water drifting down to the bottom of a waterfall, “flow” sends you from the top of the page to the bottom without even noticing what happened. Flow, in itself, doesn’t make a piece of copy persuasive… but it sure makes persuasion a lot easier, since it guarantees that the reader is paying attention. Think of the last time you read a novel and found yourself so engrossed in the story that you didn’t even notice 3 hours passing. THAT’s the kind of writing that has FLOW.
How To Achieve Flow?
Once you know what flow IS, the next question (if you’re a copywriter) is “how can I achieve it?”
There are differing opinions on this subject. As I alluded to earlier, “flow” is one of those “intangibles” that can’t be easily encapsulated in strategies and techniques. Nevertheless, I think it’s possible to identify two BASIC qualities that lend “flow” to a piece of writing.
Writing short sentences…
Avoiding excessive use of punctuation…
Never using a big word when a small word will suffice…
These “parsimonious” qualities naturally lend themselves to a certain amount of flow, because they remove the “obstacles” that “stop” readers when reading. Consider this sentence:
“David, the department head of philosophy the university, a man with numerous admirable qualities both mental and physical, was preparing for the greatest challenge of his life: grading 100 papers while running a track race.”
Something about this sentence just doesn’t feel “right.” Even though it is grammatically correct, it “stops” us repeatedly with numerous punctuation marks that could easily be avoided by breaking the sentence down into smaller sentences.
Now consider this alternative:
“David was the university’s philosophy department head. He was both mentally sharp and physically strong. But today, he was preparing for the greatest challenge of his life: grading 100 papers while running a track race.”
The second example “flows” a lot better because it doesn’t “interrupt” us with awkward phrasing.
2. Logical progression.
This second quality is probably closer to what you’d think of as “flow” if you’d taken a creative writing course.
Logical progression means each sentence so that it logically follows from the sentence before it. This doesn’t mean structuring every paragraph you write in terms of strict “if, then” logic, it just means that every idea in a piece of writing is connected to the one before it.
The best way to illustrate logical progression is to show an example of something that lacks the quality. Consider this one:
“David was planning to go to the store. He was 6 foot five, blond and athletic. He’d been thinking a lot that day about his upcoming exam. But for the time being, going to the store was priority #1.”
Something about the above passage just seems disjointed and illogical. When we read the second sentence, we think, “wait a minute, why is he mentioning this, isn’t he talking about going to the store?” By ensuring that each sentence follows from the one before, we avoid this kind of confusion.
If you want to write copy that generates real financial results, there’s nothing better you can do than focus on achieving flow. The “sexy” concepts that we’re inundated with when we learn copywriting–influence techniques, “power words,” catchy headlines, etc–only work if they’re situated within copy that’s easy to read. Of course, that in itself doesn’t make successful copy. But if you combine the quality of “flow” with a strong hook, you’re practically halfway to the goalpost.