Cal Poly

1 Cohesion and Coherence

Sentences should logically fit together in writing, connecting one idea to the next. This is referred to as cohesion. To ensure your writing is cohesive, consider using the old-new principle, where sentences begin with old information and end with new information. Notice how these two sentences work together:

For many economists, the Great Depression was less a result of historical events than it was of poor international monetary policy. Such policy included the Federal Reserve’s failure to regulate interest rates and Great Britain’s return to Pre-WWI gold standard rate.

The second sentence begins by recapping the ending of the first sentence. This enables readers to solidify the connection between one idea and the next.

Just as sentences are cohesive when they “stick” together, paragraphs are coherent when they contain one controlling idea. Paragraphs should contain a single focus supported by related sentences that form into a major and coherent point. It is helpful to first state the topic of the paragraph thus informing the reader of its purpose and summarizing what the paragraph is about. The rest of the paragraph should be focused on that topic. To ensure that your paragraphs are coherent, make sure each paragraph is structured to make a particular point.

Let’s look at the difference between two paragraphs, which are about the same thing.

Paragraph A: “The particular ideas toward the beginning of sentences define what a passage is “about” for a reader. Moving through a paragraph from a cumulatively coherent point of view is made possible by a sequence of topics that seem to constitute a limited set of related ideas. A seeming absence of context for each sentence is one consequence of making random shifts in topics. Feelings of dislocation, disorientation, and a lack of focus in a passage occur when that happens.”*

Paragraph B: “Readerslook for the topics of sentences to tell them what a whole passage is “about.” If theyfeel that its sequence of topics focuses on a limited set of related topics, then they will feel that they are moving through that passage from a cumulatively coherent point of view. But if topics seem to shift randomly, then readers have to begin each sentence from no coherent point of view, and when that happens, readers feel dislocated, disoriented, and the passage seems out of focus. For many readers, such an experience is like riding in a car that has a poor transmission.”*

*Paragraphs A & B are adapted from Williamson and Bizup (2011).

 Most readers find Paragraph A incoherent, because its string of topics is inconsistent and diffuse; they do not focus our attention on a limited set of related ideas. In contrast, Paragraph B is much more coherent because it focuses on one central topic: readers.

Along with limiting the topics in your paragraph, consider a specific strategy for developing your paragraphs. Typically, a well written paragraph will move from general to increasingly more specific claims or vice versa. Regardless of whether you move from general to specific or specific to general, be consistent with your pattern. If you do use a general-to-specific pattern in your paragraph, avoid beginning with an overly broad claim. Sentences (and essays) that begin “Every since time began…” encompass too much information for the writer and reader to manage.

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