November 17, 2009

I’ve learned two words that have helped me organize my writing. One is “coherence.” The other is “cohesion.”

The writer achieves, and the reader is meant to experience, coherence when the big parts of a piece of writing fit nicely — like a beautiful handmade piece of furniture. A story may be organized by logic, by argument, by the movement of space or time or by the elements of content or theme. In a coherent story you may not even notice the work has parts, though there is nothing wrong with a reader recognizing that the poem is a sonnet. But when a part of the story or report makes you scratch your head and wonder, “How did that get in there?” it may be a sign of incoherence.

The writer can check for coherence by indexing the parts of the text, especially the beginning, middle and end, and then write subtitles for each part, like this:

Title: Making Words Stick

Coherence and cohesion
Coherence means the big parts work together
How to test for it
Cohesion means the small parts work together
Idea behind cohesion
Examples of cohesion
How to test for it

I’ve created above a little map for how to understand this article, and you can decide whether it reflects a coherent vision or not.

What coherence does for the big parts, cohesion does for the little parts. The practice of creating cohesion is guided by some theories on how people learn. The basic idea — scandalously simplified — is that new knowledge comes from old.

Old Knowledge —> New Knowledge

In a simple sequence of sentences, the second sentence picks up where the first one leaves off; it’s as if one sentence were passing a baton to another in a relay race toward meaning.

There are many ways to connect one sentence to another, the most common being the use of a conjunction, the part of speech whose name means “to join with.” Simple conjunctions such as “and” or “but” signify for the reader that the writer is adding something new, or qualifying something that has been said before.

Another proven tool is to use a word early in the second sentence that links back to some element in the first. Take, for example, this edited television script, which appeared in “American Moments,” written by famed journalist Charles Kuralt. It is about the sounds of a San Francisco trolley car, and features a man named Al Quintana who speaks first:

“Al Quintana: ‘It’s not like a saxophone or any other musical instrument. It’s a percussion instrument.’ “

[In the second sentence, the words “It’s” and “instrument” both glance back to the first sentence.]

“Kuralt: ‘Here comes one of the percussion instruments Al Quintana is talking about. Al Quintana drives a cable car in San Francisco. The cable cars would be nothing without the cable car bells.’ “

The brevity and gentle pace of these sentences make the elements of cohesion more visible. The words “percussion,” “instrument” and “Al Quintana” all look back. Then something old — “Al Quintana” — leads us to new knowledge: that he drives a cable car. The next sentence begins with cable cars and moves us to new knowledge, that the cars have bells.

Let’s use this pattern of old to new to test my prose. Here again is the first paragraph in this article:

“I’ve learned two words that have helped me organize my writing. One is coherence. The other is cohesion.”

The first sentence introduces the phrase “two words.” The next sentence reveals “one” of those words. The next sentence reveals “the other.” Simple and comprehensible, I hope.

The best way to detect a lack of cohesion (is there a word “incohesion”?) is to read a draft aloud. I can often hear a bad spot in the text — a leap of logic, perhaps — that I cannot see. That’s when I stop and look to strengthen the tendons and ligaments that join one part of the writing to another.


  • Take a recent draft of your writing and test it for coherence and cohesion.
  • To test for coherence, mark the parts of your text, at least beginning, middle, and end, and write a subtitle for each part. Now turn those subtitles into an “index.” What have you learned about the coherence of your work during this process?
  • To test for cohesion, read the text aloud — either to yourself or a partner. Listen for disconnections, non sequiturs (literally, “it does not follow”), or leaps of logic or meaning. Check those sentences and try to rewrite them, using the old knowledge to new knowledge model.
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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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