Fall 2005

Paragraphs: Clarity, Cohesion, and Coherence
Paragraphs make promises. As we start reading a paragraph, we develop a certain expectation of what topic is going to be addressed or proven. We then expect the subsequent sentences to deliver on that promise. When we talk about clarity, we mean that what we are reading is clear and understandable. However, in order for an entire passage to seem clear, readers need more than individually clear sentences. They need the passage to be both cohesive and coherent.

The First Principle of Cohesion: Old-to-New
A paragraph is cohesive when all of the sentences “go together” in a logical sequence. We feel one sentence is cohesive with the next when we see at the beginning of a second sentence information that appeared toward the end of the previous one. That’s what creates our experience of “flow.” For example: Some astonishing questions about the nature of the universe have been raised by scientists studying black holes in space. A black hole is created by the collapse of a dead star into a point perhaps no larger than a marble. So much matter compressed into so little volume changes the fabric of space around it in puzzling ways. In other words you should: 1. Begin sentences with information familiar to your readers. That information can either come from a sentence or two before (as in the above), or it can be general information that your reader brings to the subject. 2. End sentences with information the reader cannot anticipate. Whatever is familiar and simple is easier to understand than what is new and complicated, and readers always prefer to read what is easy before they read what is hard.

Coherence: A Sense of the Whole
It’s easy to confuse these words, because they sound so much alike: • • Think of cohesion as the experience of seeing pairs of sentences fit neatly together, the way two Lego pieces do. Think of coherence as the experience of recognizing what all of the sentences in a piece of writing add up to, the way lots of Lego pieces add up to a building, bridge, or boat.

Adapted from “Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace” by Joseph Williams

moreover.). I like to make a hole in the middle of the potatoes and fill it with melted butter.” You need words like but or however when you contradict or qualify something you just said. This behavior has been the subject of long chats between me and my analyst. and the passage seems out of focus. disoriented. that’s why I play with them. and you can use therefore or consequently to finish a line of reasoning. creating a chain of related words. In prose. covered with furrows I would draw with my fork. therefore. Consider the incoherence of the following passage: Sayner. The snow reminds me of Mom’s mashed potatoes. The subjects in that passage focus on just two concepts: topics and readers. coherent whole. and when that happens. But avoid using words like those dozens of times on the same page. but you shouldn’t rely on them to keep your prose moving. also. but still not add up to a larger. Experienced writers are careful not to overuse words like and. There is a time and a place for conjunctions. etc. When a passage is coherent. readers feel dislocated. The buzzing of snowmobile engines fills the air.” If they feel that its sequence of topics focuses on a limited set of related topics. the subject of each sentence accumulates with the next. Faked Coherence: Avoid “faking” coherence with a lot of conjunctions (thus. Adapted from “Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace” by Joseph Williams . and so we interpret it as being more focused and coherent. another —words that say simply “Here’s one more thing. Her mashed potatoes usually make me sick. however. Your readers don’t need them if your logic is sound.Mehr Fall 2005 The sentences in a paragraph can fit together cohesively. and their tank like tracks crisscross the snow. For example: Readers look for the topics of sentences to tell them what a whole passage is “about. But if topics seem to shift randomly. Wisconsin is the snowmobile capital of the world. then readers have to begin each sentence from no coherent pint of view. that larger whole usually consists of some point or claim along with all of the other sentences that support it. then they will feel they are moving through that passage from a cumulatively coherent pint of view.

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