Writing Coherently

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Overview

We often think of writing as being about choosing individual words or constructing effective sentences. These things are vital, naturally, but sometimes we are told our texts “don’t make sense” or that they are “hard to read.” There can be many reasons for this, but one of the most crucial is coherence. If a text has coherence, the ideas in it appear in a way which seems logical to its intended reader. In a coherent text, the ideas are in the right order, the ideas are explained and exemplified just enough, and the ideas are linked together clearly.

To help you write coherent text, we will look at coherence at a number of levels. We’ll start with a general overview, looking at an example paragraph in different versions which are coherent and incoherent. Your task will be to identify what makes it incoherent, and try to improve it. One key idea we’ll explore will be the importance of putting yourself in the shoes of your intended reader.

We then pan backwards to the level of a whole essay. We’ll consider different essay structures, and decide which one is most suitable for a particular essay question. Along the way, we’ll also cover the structure of a research report, and find some helpful deep links to the structure of an essay. This knowledge will help with academic reading as much as with academic writing. We’ll also explore the structure of an effective introduction, as this sets the scene for the structure of the rest of an essay.

We then zoom back into paragraph level, but this time to explore how each sentence joins to the one before it, and to the one after it. We’ll find there’s no “one size fits all” way of joining sentences, but that it is a question of giving your reader just enough help along the way. The other main idea we’ll unpack here has to do with breaking an argument down into individual steps. We’ll decide which steps will be familiar to the intended reader, and which will be new information. And this will be the next stage in our journey through coherence. Knowing which information is known and which information is new will help us to decide how to structure each sentence so it is coherent. Here we’ll also look at the choice of individual words—known as sentence cohesion.

Our final stop will be one with an eye to the future. While there is much support available online with university-level essay writing, we’ll be looking ahead to the post-university world of work. In today’s world, in many careers college graduates are expected to write—emails, social media posts, websites, reports, and technical documents. While we can’t cover all possible genres of workplace writing, we’ll look at a basic toolkit for writing coherent text, and practice by analyzing a simulated business case.

Suggested Readings

Caplan, N. A. (2012). Grammar choices for graduate and professional writers. The University of Michigan Press.
The University of Manchester. (n.d.). Introducing work.
Thornbury, S. (2005). Beyond the sentence. Introducing discourse analysis.Macmillan Education.
Using English for Academic Purposes for Students in Higher Education. (n.d.). Academic writing: Writing paragraphs.