This section describes how to improve the coherence of your writing. Coherence depends on presenting ideas in a logical order and selecting effective transitions.
Use “Given-New” Information Order
To make a paragraph cohere it is necessary to organize the information in a way that is familiar to readers of English. Providing “old before new” information is the usual order. Old information comes first and then new information follows so that the reader can connect with what has already been stated before absorbing a new idea. Reversing the order tends to confuse the reader.
Ineffective: “Suffering often ignites spiritual growth. Paul tells his readers that suffering and persecution helped him to see the sufficiency of God’s grace in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10. Weakness and trust in the power of God was brought home to Paul in this situation.”
Effective: “In 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, Paul tells his readers that suffering and persecution helped him to see the sufficiency of God’s grace. Paul was forced to accept his own weakness and trust in the power of God. Suffering often ignites spiritual growth.”
Make the Topic the Subject of the Sentence
Once this structure has been utilized, there are other things that we can do to help our readers understand a message. First, a consistent topic should be established. One way to do this is to order the information in the sentences so that the grammatical subjects name the central topic or some aspect of the topic. This creates a clear and steady focus on a single idea.
Confusing: “Many of the early church fathers wrote in Latin. The papyrus they used was typically produced in Egypt and woven together from reeds. Various forms of dye were used for writing. Many of the earliest manuscripts were on a single roll rather than split up into books. It is from these manuscripts that we learn about the practices of the early church. [The subjects in these sentences are “many of the early church fathers,” “papyrus,” “forms of dye,” “many of the earliest manuscripts,” and “we” respectively.]
Clear: “Many early manuscripts of Scripture were written in Latin. These manuscripts were often composed of Egyptian papyrus woven together from reeds. The ink used on these manuscripts was often a dark shade of black or blue and made from berries of some kind. Because the manuscripts were on one long sheet of papyrus, the writer could continue writing down text while the ink above his hand was drying. [The subjects of these sentences are “manuscripts of Scripture,” “manuscripts,” “ink,” “manuscripts,” “the writer,” and “ink” respectively. Note how these subjects form a family of objects related to the main theme of the paragraph.]
Repeat Key Words
Key words that express the main topic should be repeated so that it is clear what is important to the writer. The reader remembers these key words when moving on through your writing, from one paragraph to the next. Note the key words highlighted in the following excerpt:
“Within this atmosphere [of pluralism and relativism], we who are Christians can also be seduced. Like the naturalists, we can begin to read the Bible as a merely human book. Or, with secular psychotherapists, we can read it merely as one source for advice: we can use it on our own terms to promote our self-esteem. Or, with New Age religion, we can search the Bible for stimulating thoughts about angels, demons, and altered states of consciousness. Or, with the hedonists, we can simply go on our pleasure-seeking way, without taking time to meditate on the Word of God.” [The repetition “Bible” and its related words helps the reader quickly apprehend the topic.] from Vern Poythress’ God-Centered Biblical Interpretation (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1999), 5.
Avoid Repeating Background Terms
While it is helpful to the reader to repeat the words or phrases that name the central topic of the paragraph, the background terms should be varied to prevent the reader from becoming bored. In the following paragraph, the central topic is church architecture. The unnecessary repetition of the word “church” distracts from the focus.
One of the interesting facets of church architecture is that it is intimately related to a church’s tradition and to the congregation’s theology of the church. If ministers tend to be highly venerated for their role of teaching the members of the church, the pulpit may be centrally located in the front of the church and elevated as the locus of the church’s most prominent liturgical function.
Consider the following revision, in which the word “church” is replaced in several instances by a synonym or else omitted entirely when it does not refer to “church architecture.” The resulting prose is more clearly focused on the family of terms that are used to describe church architecture, such as “pulpit” and “sanctuary.”
One of the interesting facets of church architecture is that it is intimately related to denominational tradition and to the congregation’s ecclesiology. If ministers tend to be highly venerated for their role of teaching, the pulpit may be centrally located in the front of the sanctuary and elevated as the locus of the tradition’s most prominent liturgical function.
Use Parallelism to Compare Ideas
Parallelism is the use of the same or similar grammatical forms to express similar ideas. Expressing comparable ideas in similar grammatical form links these elements linguistically and logically. Note in the following example how parallelism can strengthen the impact of the message.
Ineffective and Confusing: “Martin Luther had several reasons for desiring to reform the church: the increased abuse of indulgences, refusing to give certain elements of the Eucharist to the lay people, and tradition had become more important than the preaching of the Word.” [The elements in this list include a noun phrase, a gerund phrase, and an independent clause.]
Clear and Effective: “Martin Luther had several reasons for desiring to reform the church: the increased use of indulgences, the inadequate administration of the Eucharist, and the fact that tradition had become more important than the preaching of the Word.” [Now the elements in the list match in grammatical form because each element is expressed in a noun phrase.]
Clear but Weak: “Calvin’s theology clearly asserts that man is depraved and he is unworthy of God’s grace and powerless to change his condition.”
Clear and Strong: “Calvin’s theology clearly asserts that man is depraved, unworthy of grace, and powerless."
For further discussion of other ways to maintain clarity, coherence, and cohesion, see Joseph Williams’ Style: Toward Clarity and Grace.
Other "Writing Clearly and Coherently" topics:
Writing Clearly and Coherently Home
Overcoming Obstacles to Clarity
Becoming a Better Writer Home