Coherence and Cohesion: Putting the Right Pieces Together

Tips from one writer to another.

(Originally posted here.)


As a graduating Professional Writing major, one of the main lessons I learned in my classes was how to be straightforward in my writing. Too many times, writers fall into the temptation of thinking that more words and longer sentences will impress professors and readers. While it’s essential to develop your vocabulary, there’s more to successful writing than just using fancy words from a thesaurus. Rather, the key to effective writing is organizing words and sentences in a way that communicates a complete thought.

A book that I found helpful was Style Lessons in Clarity and Grace, written by Joseph Bizup and Joseph Williams. Introduced in my Expository Writing class, this book helped me understand the concepts of cohesion and coherence. Here is how Bizup and Williams define cohesion and coherence, respectively:

Think of cohesion as pairs of sentences fitting together in the

way two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle do.

Think of coherence as seeing what all the sentences in a piece

of writing add up to, the way all the pieces in a puzzle add up

to the picture on the box.

From these definitions, what sticks out to me is the jigsaw analogy. Think of writing your essay, story, or other literary work as putting together a jigsaw puzzle. A tedious task, yet when the right pieces are put together, it creates an amazing picture. Cohesive sentences aid the reader in understanding your train of thought through each paragraph, while coherence gives a sense of wholeness. For starters, Bizup and Williams recommend reducing redundant modifiers (two examples are unique differences and absolute truth) and replacing a phrase with a word (the reason for can be replaced with why). In addition, here are two more tips to consider when wanting to be more cohesive and coherent in your writing.

Avoiding Distractions at the Beginning of a Sentence

You might be familiar with the phrase throat-clearing. When giving an oral presentation in class, you were told to avoid ummm and ahhh when speaking. In writing, a similar concept called metadiscourse is seen with words like therefore, and, or but. Such transitional words and phrases address both the writing and the audience. However, they can also prevent the reader from knowing the topic of the sentence when used excessively throughout the paper. Should one of your sentences begin with a bunch of words before the topic, use your discretion and decide whether they enhance the topic of the sentence or distract the reader from understanding.

Faked Coherence

I’m sure at some point you used words like thus, therefore, however, and so on to connect sentences. I admit I’m guilty of relying on these words too much when it comes to my rough draft. Bizup and Williams advise that you use these words sparingly. Similarly to throat-clearing, faked coherence gives the illusion of connection. As you develop your writing skills, focus more on the logical flow of your ideas. You can use transitions when you want to enhance clarity in certain areas. There is nothing inherently wrong with transitional words or phrases if they are used correctly.

Summary

To summarize, Bizup and Williams restate the process and benefits of incorporating cohesion:

Sentences are cohesive when the last few words of

one set up information that appears in the first few

words of the next.

In every sequence of sentences you write, you have to balance

principles that make individual sentences clear and principles

that make a passage cohesive. But in that tradeoff, give priority

to helping readers create a sense of cohesive flow.

Revision is key. It’s important not to cut away so much information that you leave the reader without any content, or put too much information that ends up overwhelming the reader. Whether it’s taking a few words out or discarding the sentence altogether, be objective in the way you write and what you want to present to readers. Cohesion and coherence are the solid foundations for composing any piece of writing. Like every story, it’s about having a strong beginning, intriguing middle, and a fulfilling end.


Hey everyone. If you gave this a read, please hit the heart button and leave a comment below. I would definitely appreciate feedback and any suggestions on what to do next. You can reach me on Twitter (@brotherhumbled) or email (brotherhumbled@gmail.com).

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