I am writing a series of posts on writing by engaging the classic book on style by Joseph Williams and Gregory Colomb, Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace (10th Edition). In the lesson 5 they address the topic of cohesive and coherent writing. The topic is the third of four chapters on clarity in writing style.
Why does a passage of writing seem “choppy” or “disorganized”? What does a paragraph feel like its moving in fits and starts? Williams and Colomb’s suggest that those kinds of judgments are the result of word order
- We judge sequences of sentence to be cohesive depending on how each sentence ends and the next begins.
- We judge a whole passage to be coherent depending on how all the sentences in a passage cumulatively begin.
Here’s how they distinguish the two concepts:
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 (72)
As readers we feel sentences are cohesive when the last few words of one set up the information that appears in the first few words of the next. Following from this, the writing principle is: “old-before-new”. In our revision of written material, we need to look at our sentences and ask, “Does newer, unanticipated material come at the end of the sentence?” One point of reminder: this is not something you should be thinking about while writing a first draft of a paragraph, section or even an essay. Remember what was said in the first post. You’ve got to allow yourself the freedom to write creatively and without any concern for grammar, style, etc. Only after you write to you analyze what you’ve written. Again, good righting is the result of many revisions!
Three elements in a piece of writing together will make your writing seem coherent to a reader:
- The subjects in your sentences are related
- Your sentences share common themes
- The paragraph has at least one sentence that states what the whole passage supports or explains.
In describing the first of the three, Williams and Colombs recommend that we analyze our writing objectively. Underline the first seven or eight words of every sentence or even clause in a paragraph. Then analyze them to see if these underlined words constitute a “relatively small set of topics”. Will your readers see how they are related? Revise if necessary so that your sentences use subjects to name their topics at the beginning.
You may be thinking to yourself, “I thought variety was the spice of life”. I don’t want to bore readers and I want to keep them interested in what I’m saying. You may think your writing is monotonous if you see the same topic in several of its sentences. However, remember, you are not the person who is most important; YOUR READER is. Your reader is less likely to notice your purple flourish as they focus on the topics.
One other useful tip in this lesson on coherence and cohesion is avoiding “throat-clearing” words at the beginning of sentences. These are words and phrases that we put in front of the subject/topic: e.g., “And, therefore, it is important to note that . . .” Here’s their advice:
When you begin sentences, choose your topics carefully. Make most of them subjects of your sentences. They should be short, concrete, familiar words, and more often than not, they should name the main characters in your story. Most important keep them consistent: do not vary your subjects for the sake of variety. Your topics should tell your readers what a passage is globally “about” (76).
- Begin sentences with subjects that communicate old information, information with which your readers are familiar.
- Through a series of sentences, keep your topics short and reasonably consistent.