Coherence in Writing
Have you ever read a piece of writing and wondered what point the writer was trying to make? If so, that piece of writing probably lacked coherence. Coherence is an important aspect of good writing—as important as good grammar or spelling. However, it is also rather harder to learn how to do it, because it is not a matter of simple rules.
Coherent writing moves smoothly between ideas. It guides the reader through an argument or series of points using signposts and connectors. It generally has a clear structure and consistent tone, with little or no repetition. Coherent writing feels planned—usually because it is. This page provides some tips to help you to develop your ability to write coherently.
Dictionary definition of coherence
cohere, v. to stick together, to be consistent, to fit together in a consistent, orderly whole.
coherence, a sticking together, consistency.
Source: Chambers English Dictionary, 1989 edition.
The dictionary definition of coherence is clear enough—but what does that mean in practical terms for writers?
Once you have achieved coherence in your writing, you will find that:
Your sentences and ideas are connected and flow together;
Readers can move easily through the text from one sentence, paragraph or idea to the next; and
Readers will be able to follow the ideas and main points of the text.
On the other hand, a text that is NOT coherent jumps between ideas without making clear connections between them. It is often hard to follow the argument. Readers may find themselves unclear about the point of particular paragraphs or even whole sections. There may be odd sentences that do not fit well with the previous or following sentence, or paragraphs that repeat earlier ideas.
All these issues provide pointers for how to develop coherence.
Elements of Coherence
There are several different elements that contribute to coherence, or are closely linked to the concept.
Cohesion, or whether ideas are linked within and between sentences.
Unity, or the extent to which a sentence, paragraph or section focuses on a single idea or group or ideas. In any given paragraph, every sentence should be relevant to a single focus.
A joint effort
Together, cohesion and unity mean that sentences and paragraphs are connected around a central theme.
- Flow, or how the reader is led through the text. Some of this is about the ordering of ideas, but it also takes into account issues like phrasing, rhythm and style. Some people define flow as the quality that makes writing engaging and easy to read.
Levels of Coherence
We can consider coherence at several different levels. These include:
Within sentences. A sentence is coherent when it flows naturally, and uses correct grammar, spelling and punctuation. Coherence also includes the use of the most appropriate words, and avoidance of redundancy.
Between sentences. Coherence between sentences means that each sentence flows logically and naturally from the previous one. Connections are made between them so that readers can see the flow of ideas, and how each sentence is linked to the previous one.
Within paragraphs. This is a logical extension of coherence between sentences. Coherence within a paragraph means that the sentences within the paragraph work together as a whole to present a complete thesis or idea.
Why single-sentence paragraphs don’t work
This definition of ‘within paragraph’ coherence explains why you should (almost) never use single-sentence paragraphs. A single sentence is (almost) never going to be able to provide a complete summary of your thesis or idea.
Between paragraphs. For most pieces of writing, you will also need to consider how the paragraphs fit together. Each paragraph covers an idea or thesis—and must then be connected logically to the next paragraph, so that your overall thesis is built step-by-step.
Between subsections or sections. This final level of coherence is only really important for longer documents. You must create a logical flow between different sections, to guide your reader from one to the next so that they can follow the development of your ideas.
Techniques to Improve Coherence
The first step to improving coherence is to plan your writing in advance.
Decide on the main point that you want to make, and the ideas that will lead your reader towards your point. It is also helpful to consider your planned audience, and what they want from your text.
There is more about this in our page on Know Your Audience. You may also find it helpful to read our page on Know Your Medium, to check whether there is anything about your publishing medium that you need to consider ahead of starting to write.
There are some techniques that you can use to help improve coherence within your writing. These include:
Using transitional expressions and phrases to signal connections
Words and phrases like ‘however’, ‘because’, ‘therefore’, ‘additionally’, and ‘on the one hand... on the other’ can be used to signal connections between sentences and paragraphs.
WARNING! Real connections needed!
Transitional phrases and words should only be used where the ideas really are connected.
Just inserting transitional expressions will not connect your ideas. Instead, you need to create a reasonable progression of ideas through a paragraph or section.
You also need to use transitional expressions sparingly. Not all ideas need an obvious link—and sometimes putting one in can seem awkward and contrived.
Using repeating forms or parallel structures to emphasise links between ideas
Generally speaking, repetition of words and phrases is unadvisable.
However, used sparingly, you may be able to harness repetition as a way to signal connections between sentences or ideas.
For example, many research papers have a section setting out the limitations of the study. These limitations can often be quite diverse, which makes for a rather disjointed section. To overcome this issue, writers often use the form ‘First... Second... Finally...’ to demonstrate the links between the disparate ideas.
Using pronouns and synonyms to eliminate unnecessary repetition
Repetition is often the enemy of coherence because it interrupts your movement through the writing. You tend to get distracted by the repeated words, and lose the thread of the argument or idea.
Pronouns and synonyms are a good way to avoid repeating words and phrases. However, care is needed when using them, to avoid ambiguity. It is advisable NOT to use pronouns following a sentence with two elements that might take the same pronoun.
John was sure that Tom was wrong. He had made the same argument last week.
Who made the same argument last week? John or Tom?
It is better to use at least one name again than create ambiguity.
TOP TIP! Come back later
It is often hard to detect ambiguity in your own writing because you know what you wanted to say.
It is therefore a good idea to leave any piece of writing overnight, and read it again in the morning. This will often identify problems such as ambiguous pronouns, and give you a chance to revise them.
Revisit, Revise and Review
Alongside planning, the single most important thing that you can do to improve the coherence of a piece of writing is to review and revise it with the reader’s needs in mind.
When you have finished a piece of writing, put it aside for a while. Overnight is ideal, but longer is fine. Once you have had a chance to forget precisely what you meant, read it over again as if you were coming to it for the first time.
As you start to read, consider the focus of your text: the main point that you want to make.
With that in mind, consciously examine whether the ideas flow clearly through your sentences, paragraphs and sections. Can the reader grasp your argument and follow it through the text? Is there an obvious conclusion?
While you are reading, you should also consider whether there are any very long sentences. If so, shorten them, using transitional words or phrases to link them together effectively. This will make your writing easier to read, and it will naturally flow better.
A Final Thought
It is not always easy to know how to create more coherent writing.
The best way to do so is to plan your writing, and then review it carefully. You should particularly consider your focus, and your readers’ needs. In doing so, you may find it helpful to use some of the techniques described on this page—but they will not, in themselves, be sufficient without the planning and review.