Over the course of my life, I’ve stumbled across a paragraph or two that didn’t quite make sense. My eyes find the period mark at the end of the last sentence and I ask myself “what exactly did I just read?” and I’m forced to read it all over again. A lack of clarity can make or break a work for an author’s audience; a lack of clarity turns to confusion, which turns to frustration, which cuts to me closing the book forever. Though the two words sound an awful lot alike, cohesion and coherence remain two vastly different things, and both must be addressed separately to ensure clarity in writing.
I think many people become confused when distinguishing between cohesion and coherence because, on the surface, the two seem to be one and the same. Though I thoroughly read Williams’ and Bizup’s chapter on cohesion and coherence in their book Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, I still found myself confusing the two. I hope to clarify these same confusions for my classmates and provide insight as to how to prevent such writing faux pas.
Let’s begin with cohesion. Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup offer a clear definition of cohesion in Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace: in their words, cohesion is to be thought of as “pairs of sentences fitting together in the way two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle do” (71). In regard to writing, cohesion most directly connects with the sense of flow in a work, “depending on how each sentence ends and the next begins” (67). Cohesion can also include the writer’s decision to use active or passive voice, to ensure consistency throughout the text. Take the following two sentences for example: “2a. The collapse of a dead start into a point perhaps no larger than a marble creates active a black hole. 2b. A black hole is created passive by the collapse of a dead start into a point perhaps no larger than a marble” (68). Notice how the second sentence doesn’t quite connect to the first—the consequence of clashing an active verb with a passive verb. In this scenario, it helps to think of cohesion as the need to match a brown belt with brown shoes, the brown being the use of active voice and the belt and shoes being each sentence. 2a’s active verb is a brown belt, while 2b’s passive verb is the clashing black shoes, creating discord and incoherence in the ensemble. Following the first sentence’s lead, the second should have matched the active voice, ensuring the subtle, but necessary coordination of a brown belt with brown shoes. So what are some other ways can we avoid a lack of cohesion in our writing?
We as writers need to be careful with what word we put where, to ensure clarity for our readers; we need to be picky. A paragraph consisting of six well-written sentences may appear engaging as you revise each individual sentence. Yet, when you take a step back and notice that neither the sentences nor their ideas link towards one, coherent thought, you have a problem with cohesion. You wouldn’t ask six different people to pick out an article of clothing and then blindly throw on whatever they selected (picture someone handing you a Ralph Lauren Polo button-down and tie, Nike athletic shorts, and a pair of hunting boots). Each individual piece might be functional, even stylish (or “cohesive”, in writing lingo) on its own, but people would have a hard time distinguishing whether you’re dressed for the gym, a date, or a hunting trip—hopefully not all three. This idea translates into our writing, as well. I repeat, we need to be picky. Each word, each phrase must be carefully selected to ensure maximum clarity in our sentences, and in turn, the entire piece of text.
Thankfully, Williams and Bizup don’t just draw attention to the failings of cohesion and then leave us all out to dry. Instead, they offer three principles of clarity to avoid a lack of cohesion in your writing: “Make main characters the subject of sentences, make important action verbs…and put old information before new information” (70). Williams and Bizup also point out that “you can’t predict how readers will judge the flow of your writing just by reading it yourself, because you know it too well” (73). There are two ways to handle such a situation. The first is simple: peer review. The second remains more mentally strenuous for the author. As you go forward in your writing, I suggest inserting a mental stop sign at the end of each paragraph. Actually stop and review—don’t follow the example set forth by Cher from Clueless. Her old “I totally paused” excuse didn’t help her learn how to drive, and it won’t help you avoid problems with cohesion (“Clueless”). You should abide by this process constantly in your writing, not just sporadically.
Now that our understanding of cohesion is…cohesive, we can begin to talk about coherence. Coherence is “what the sentences in a piece of writing add up to, the way all the pieces in the puzzle add up to the picture on the box” (71). So coherence creates a sense of whole and is essentially “big picture” thinking. I prefer to think of coherence as a really coordinated outfit, specifically the scene in Clueless where Cher wakes up and picks out her clothes using a computer that dictates a mismatch or not—she clearly has a “way normal life for a teenage girl” (“Clueless”). Under normal circumstances, I don’t think any of us would have picked out a matching yellow plaid skirt and blazer with white knee-high socks. But as we’ve witnessed since the movie release in the ‘90s, the outfit works, and is therefore coherent. Though coherence generally relates to an overall piece of text, individual sentences can lack coherence, too—individual sentences may even go so far as to fake coherence.
Nobody likes it when someone fakes something, not fake Gucci, not designer imposter perfume, and least of all, faked coherence. Take an example from Williams and Bizup: “Both reporters and the president are human, however, subject to error and favoritism” (77). The use of a connecting device like “however” can be skillful if executed in the right way. The statement “both reporters and the president are human” implies what follows the connecting device. Therefore, their faults (error and favoritism) are not conclusions to be drawn at the end of the sentence, but rather obvious implications connecting with the basic fundamental failings of humanity; you cannot draw a conclusion that is not there.
Confusing connecting devices are not the only means of incorrectly drawn coherence. A writer should avoid distractions at the beginning of sentences—a form of “throat clearing” (75). Get in, name your topics, and get out. I’ve found a good way to avoid such digressions is to just write it now, revise it later. With this “throat clearing” comes the idea that writers must vary the beginnings of their sentences to avoid monotony. As Williams and Bizup point out, it is possible to vary your topics too much, as well as too little. All of these little pieces add up to the big picture that is coherence in our writing.
Clearly cohesion and coherence are two separate things, but they work together to accomplish something vital: clarity for the reader. Proper execution of both can prove a lengthy, potentially painful revision process. But if cohesion and coherence are thoroughly taken into account, finding the meaning in an author’s work won’t be as difficult and useless as “searching for meaning in a Pauly Shore movie” (“Clueless”).
“Clueless,” directed by Amy Heckerling (1995; CA: Paramont Pictures), DVD.
Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup, Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. 11th ed. New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2014.