Revising Paragraphs: Building Coherence
All too often, we take the paragraph for granted, despite the fact that it is the building block of the essay. A good paragraph must possess “coherence.”
According to most dictionary definitions, coherence means: 1.) logical interconnection; 2.) overall sense or understandability; 3.) the property of unity in a written text or a segment of spoken discourse that stems from the links among its underlying ideas and from the logical organization and development of its thematic content (“Coherence”).
More generally, coherence refers to the understandability and logical structure of things that people build, create, say, or write. When writing teachers discuss “coherence,” we focus on the conceptual and logical links between different sentences and paragraphs in a piece of writing. Writing—books, essays, or paragraphs—that is coherent is logical and develops in a pattern or progression that is easily understandable for the reader. The ideas in a good, coherent piece of writing are ideas that the reader can follow logically: the connections between each sentence, each paragraph, or each chapter should be clear and explicit.
The most important element of paragraph coherence is the topic sentence. The topic sentence is the sentence that connects all the other elements of the sentence. It is the paragraph’s thesis. Paragraphs that lack clear topic sentences are automatically incoherent.
Read the following paragraph carefully, examining how each sentence is connected logically to the one that preceded it. Can you identify the topic sentence? Where does the author introduce new ideas or shifts the focus of the paragraph?
Reality television is the worst thing ever to happen to the medium of television. It is inexpensive to produce, and as such, really popular with networks eager to make a quick profit. Shows that feature good, professional writing, established actors, and high-quality production values and special effects are getting rarer every year. Competition shows like American Idol and America’s Got Talent, while admittedly showcasing very gifted individuals, also play upon viewers’ worst qualities. Who hasn’t watched the first couple of Idol episodes simply to hear some deluded amateur songstress horribly attempt to screech out a Christina Aguilera song? It’s hilarious, but also mean. Horrible shows like The Jersey Shore and The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and Keeping up with the Kardashians, are the fast food of the television landscape. Extremely cheap and easy to “crank out,” they take little effort to create and sustain, and they teach us nothing except how terrible, petty, or mean people can be toward each other. Exceptional scripted dramas like Mad Men, The Wire, Lost, The West Wing or even L.A. Law or Hill Street Blues are now hard to find, often banished to small cable networks like AMC or FX, where fewer and fewer people will ever get to see them. Now all we get to see on television are horrible rich snobs, violent, drunken idiots on a perpetual vacation, and various mildly amusing bakers who specialize in seven-foot tall cakes. What happened?
This paragraph contains a lot of evidence, a lot of detail, and even some strong critical thinking skills. BUT, the ideas within the paragraph are not organized in a logically coherent way: it jumps around and shifts focus. It starts with a strong idea, in the form of its topic sentence, which is clear and direct:
Reality television is the worst thing ever to happen to the medium of television.
But the next sentence talks about the finances and popularity of producing a reality TV show:
It is inexpensive to produce, and as such, really popular with networks eager to make a quick profit.
And the third sentence in the paragraph reports that “traditional” scripted shows are now harder to find:
Shows that feature good, professional writing, established actors, and high-quality production values and special effects are getting rarer every year.
Up to this point in the paragraph, we readers are expecting to be told that the ease and cheapness of reality shows are pushing networks to produce more of them, at the expense of really good (and more expensive) dramas and comedies. Starting with the paragraph’s fourth sentence, the focus of the paragraph shifts. It now is asserting that reality television is bad for us as human beings—the focus is no longer on “good” shows getting pushed off of television in favor of cheap reality shows:
Competition shows like American Idol and America’s Got Talent, while admittedly showcasing very gifted individuals, also play upon viewers’ worst qualities. Who hasn’t watched the first couple of Idol episodes simply to hear some deluded amateur songstress horribly attempt to screech out a Christina Aguilera song? It’s hilarious, but also mean.
The next couple of sentences push the focus back to reality shows as “cheap-and-easy” mindless television:
Horrible shows like The Jersey Shore, The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and Keeping up with the Kardashians, are the fast food of the television landscape. Extremely cheap and easy to “crank out,” they take little effort to create and sustain, and they teach us nothing except how terrible, petty, or mean people can be toward each other.
This passage fits more directly with the original intent of the paragraph as developed in the first couple of sentences. The next sentences pursue the idea of the negative effects on the quality of television shows:
Exceptional scripted dramas like Mad Men, The Wire, Lost, The West Wing or even L.A. Law or Hill Street Blues are now hard to find, often banished to small cable networks like AMC or FX, where fewer and fewer people will ever get to see them.
The last two sentences are a bit vague, and could be made to fit more effectively with the paragraph as a whole:
Now all we get to see on television are horrible rich snobs, violent, drunken idiots on a perpetual vacation, and various mildly amusing bakers who specialize in seven-foot tall cakes. What happened?
The end result is a paragraph that contains a lot of good information, but lacks coherence. While staying on the paragraph’s general topic of reality television being a bad thing, it jumps around from one reason to another in explaining why it is bad. While every sentence is related to the paragraph’s topic sentence, the logical “flow” of the paragraph is hard to follow because the writer shifts his focus between two sub-ideas: reality television pushing better fare off the airwaves, and reality television being mindless drivel that plays upon its viewers’ worst impulses. Thus, the paragraph is not nearly as coherent and effective as it could be through judicious revision.
There are several ways to build coherence in a paragraph, but the most important one is this: first know the overall goal of the paragraph, or what you want it to accomplish. This is part of the problem with the reality television example above. The writer definitely has a strong view on the rotten nature of reality television, but the reasons why he thinks reality television is so bad are not well coordinated. The passage addresses two points: that cheap and easy reality television pushes out “quality” scripted shows, and that reality shows play on their viewers’ worst qualities and contribute nothing to society. The question a good reviser would ask is: how do these two ideas relate? One answer would be that they are simply two reasons why the overall assertion of the paragraph is valid. But what is the most logical way to make this point? Which bad part of reality television should be addressed first? Can we add things or rearrange the paragraph to make it cohere more logically? One model would be the following:
- Topic sentence: Reality television is the worst thing ever to happen to the medium of television.
- New organizing sentence: This is true for two reasons: reality television is superficial entertainment that plays upon its viewers’ worst qualities, and because it is so cheap and profitable to produce, it pushes more expensive quality television off the airwaves.
A sentence like this sets up the logical structure of the paragraph to follow, preparing the reader to hear—in order—exactly how reality television is the worst thing to happen to the medium of television; it narrows and clarifies the topic sentence. Once we have a narrowing statement like this, we can then move on to talking about each of our own main points in turn.
- Rearranged / moved sentence. Horrible shows like The Jersey Shore and The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and Keeping up with the Kardashians, are the fast food of the television landscape. Extremely cheap and easy to “crank out,” they take little effort to create and sustain, and they teach us nothing except how terrible, petty, or mean people can be toward each other.
This sentence deals directly with how bad reality television is, both in terms of morality and quality. The next sentence supplies more detail, both qualifying (slightly backing off from) and supporting the main idea:
- Competition shows like American Idol and America’s Got Talent, while admittedly showcasing very gifted individuals, also play upon viewers’ worst qualities. Who hasn’t watched the first couple of Idol episodes simply to hear some deluded amateur songstress horribly attempt to screech out a Christina Aguilera song? It’s hilarious, but also mean.
Now we have made our first main point. We now need to add something to the paragraph to more clearly connect it to our second point—that cheap and easy reality television pushes good television off the air.
- New organizing sentence. This mean-spirited “entertainment” has another consequence—pushing good television off the air.
In this sentence, we transition between the two related ideas in the paragraph, setting up a logical relation between the two concepts; good television going away is a consequence of the popularity of reality television. The next couple of sentences explain this logic:
- Reality television is inexpensive to produce, and as such, it is really popular with networks eager to make a quick profit.
- Shows that feature good, professional writing, established actors, and high-quality production values and special effects are getting rarer every year.
- Rearranged / moved sentence: Exceptional scripted dramas like Mad Men, The Wire, Lost, The West Wing or even A. Law or Hill Street Blues are now hard to find, often banished to small cable networks like AMC or FX, where fewer and fewer people will ever get to see them.
This sentence (8), provides examples of the ideas introduced in sentence (7), and thus is a logical next step in the progression of the paragraph. The final couple of sentences summarize and emphasize the paragraph’s main points:
- Now all we get to see on television are horrible rich snobs, violent, drunken idiots on a perpetual vacation, and various mildly amusing bakers who specialize in seven-foot tall cakes.
- What happened?
Tools for Building Paragraph Coherence
Good writers use all kinds of linguistic tools for building coherence in their paragraphs. Among these are
- Transitional Expressions and Logical Relations
- Pronoun Use
- Repeated Words and Phrases
- Parallel Structure
Expressions that Signal Relation
also, in addition, too, moreover, and, besides, furthermore, equally important, then, finally, as well, further, indeed, in fact
either…or, if only, instead, instead of, in that case, neither…nor, otherwise, rather than, unless, whether…or, or, in other words
as a result of, because, due to, for, on account of, since
similarly, likewise, in the same way, not only…but also, as…as [e.g., as slow as a turtle]
of course, to be sure, certainly, granted
but, yet, however, on the other hand, nevertheless, nonetheless, conversely, in contrast, by contrast, still, at the same time, although, despite, even if, whereas, by comparison
Degree or Extent
for the most part, so…that [e.g., she is so loud that she doesn't need a microphone], to some extent, to some degree, to a certain extent, such…that [e.g., it is such a long way that I can't walk], in part, partly
for example, for instance, thus, as an illustration, namely, specifically, such as, : [colon], in that
in the front, in the foreground, in the back, in the background, at the side, adjacent, nearby, in the distance, here, there
so that, to, so as to, in order to, in such a way as to
therefore, thus, as a result, so, accordingly, as a result, it follows that, consequently
hence, in short, in brief, in summary, in conclusion, to sum up
first, second, third, next, then, finally, afterwards, before, soon, later, meanwhile, subsequently, immediately, eventually, currently
Transitional expressions or logical relations are words and phrases that signal connections or specific relationships among ideas within a paragraph or essay, i.e., how the concepts discussed in the paragraph or essay fit together.
Pronouns are one of the simplest ways that writers establish coherence in their writing. Words like I, he, she, him, her, they, we and them are more than convenient substitutes for proper nouns— they are also a means of building and maintaining logical coherence within a paragraph. Here’s an example from a famous short story, James Joyce’s “Araby,” the story of a young boy falling in love for the first time:
When the short days of winter came, dusk fell before we had well eaten our dinners. When we met in the street the houses had grown sombre. The space of sky above us was the colour of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns. The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed. Our shouts echoed in the silent street. The career of our play brought us through the dark muddy lanes behind the houses where we ran the gauntlet of the rough tribes from the cottages, to the back doors of the dark dripping gardens where odours arose from the ashpits, to the dark odorous stables where a coachman smoothed and combed the horse or shook music from the buckled harness. When we returned to the street, light from the kitchen windows had filled the areas. If my uncle was seen turning the corner, we hid in the shadow until we had seen him safely housed.
Even in a piece of prose as sophisticated and “literary” as this, Joyce uses the simple repetition of “we” and “us” and “our” to connect the ideas to one another. The reader clearly understands that the narrator is one of a group of children, playing on his street, with similar experience and viewpoints.
Here is another example, this time from a personal narrative—the use of “he” and “him” ties the ideas together here, even over two short paragraphs:
His thundering rages are most vivid, his tears subtle. Watching and feeling for them, but unable to bridge the gap, I learned to love, hate him all in the same breath. No one ever knew this. They saw a kid in love with her father.
He was a boxer when I was small. People say he was good and would have made it had he started younger, but he had a wife and growing family to provide for. Amateur boxing paid nothing, but he loved it. I think he must have been about twenty-two then. He claims that we were too young to have seen him fight, but I remember.
From Lenore Keeshig-Tobias, "He Was a Boxer When I Was Small"
Read the following passage, and circle the most appropriate pronouns or nouns that promote a sense of coherence, order, and clarity in the text. Remember: pronouns refer to the last noun appearing in the passage before them. Make sure you select the words that offer the most clarity.
Some important problems with technology-assisted learning have been revealed by scientists studying the way people read online. __________(These insights / they) were detected using eye-tracking tools that analyze the motion of a reader’s eye while he or she is reading text from a screen. ____________ (Screen text / it) is, according to the data, usually read in a pattern that resembles a capital letter “F.” Sentences at or near the top of a screen page are usually read completely, beginning to end. However, as ____________ (The eye / it ) descends the page, fewer words on each line are read and, eventually, ______________ (reading / it) becomes an almost vertical activity. Indeed, web researcher and usability expert, Walter Conason suggests that “reading” is not an accurate description of this activity. _____________ (The author / he) suggests that many web pages and PDF files represent “splashes” or “blobs” of content to users who will not read them with a significant level of attention unless ______________ (the files / they) are first printed out.______________ (The author / He) suggests that even a screen that looks somewhat like a book turns ______________ (Users / them) away because________________ (the web / it) is not perceived to be a place for serious reading.
(Adapted from Bauerlein, M. The Australian, 10/8/2008.)
Writers often deliberately repeat key words and phrases to establish a sense of logical continuity within a paragraph. These repeated forms, appearing in multiple consecutive phrases or sentences, continually remind the reader of the subject of the passage.
Here is an example from Marie Nelson’s commentary on the old-English epic story Beowulf:
But let us begin as Beowulf begins, with the situation in the land of the Danes when Beowulf arrives. As readers will remember, all promisers do not follow through by doing what they say they will do. As Hrothgar explains to Beowulf, who has just arrived, his trusted "ōretmecgas" often promised to wait for Grendel's attack in the meadhall.
Even if we have little idea what the passage actually means (it is a bit obscure), we can follow the basic logic of the passage through the writer’s repetition of forms of the word “begin,” “promise,” “arrive,” and “do.”
To be parallel means, according to the Random House Dictionary, “having the same direction, course, nature, or tendency; corresponding; similar; analogous.” In writing, this idea is shown as having similar structures repeat throughout a text, usually for some particular effect. Here’s an example:
Achilles was a brilliant leader, a fierce warrior, and a loving husband.
Each of the descriptions of Achilles here (the hero of Homer’s epic poem The Iliad) are structured in basically the same way. Each entry on the list has two parts—an adjective and a role: brilliant leader, fierce warrior, loving husband. The simple pattern of these two parts is repeated throughout the list, making it sound even and unified. Here’s another example, a bit more complicated (also see Chapter 05.3.1, Thesis Statements, for more on parallelism):
To salvage our nation’s reputation, resolve our political differences, and avert a financial meltdown, the United States must reduce the national debt.
Here, the three reasons for the writer’s claim all follow a similar structure— “to do X,” “to do Y,” and “to do Z,” we must reduce the debt. The same structure is repeated throughout the list.
The same principle holds true for longer pieces of writing. Parallel structures—think repeated patterns of words, rather than simply strategically repeated words (see above), can often provide a sense of coherence and unity to a paragraph (or even a whole essay).
Here’s a short piece of a speech from Winston Churchill, the leader of Great Britain during World War II, discussing a massive defeat that his army just suffered in France. In this speech he is attempting to motivate his army to fight on despite their losses:
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous states have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight in the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and liberation of the old.
Churchill here uses many repeated structures. The bolded parts above all contain “we shall” in some form—he uses this phrase eleven times in the course of this short passage! Similarly, he repeats many parallel prepositional phrases—“on the X,” “in the Y,”—in combination with this “we shall.” These repeated structures make it easy for the reader to grasp Churchill’s emphasis. He is talking about a single subject – the need to continue fighting – and developing a coherent argument around it.
Here’s an example from someone you might be more familiar with, Dr. Martin Luther King. This is an excerpt from his very famous “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered in Washington, D.C. at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963:
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
In this passage Dr. King begins each sentence with “one hundred years later” and then follows it with “the Negro,” and a description of the specific injustice that he is protesting. The repetition gives the passage a strong sense of coherence and rhetorical flourish. Dr. King does this throughout the speech. Can you see the parallelism in the passage below? What phrases does Dr. King repeat to provide a sense of unity and coherence to the speech? Underline some of them.
As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied, as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating "For Whites Only". We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
And here’s an even more direct example of parallel structure from the same speech:
I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
Exercise: Practice in Building Coherence
Consider the sentences below, and re-arrange them into a coherent paragraph by re-numbering them in the space provided. Mark with an “X” any sentence that does not directly relate to the main point of the paragraph.
____(1) Chocolate lovers beware: the seed of love, the cocoa bean, is threatened by disease.
____(2) “Overall production for 2004 is expected to fall 0.3 percent led in part by a decline of 2.4 percent in West Africa,” said Bill Guyton, president of Virginia-based World Cocoa Foundation.
____(3) The traveling of diseases is "a very real possibility and the consequences of that would be close to catastrophic ... from the local farmers up to every chain in the chocolate industry," said Edward Allen Herre of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.
____(4) The witches' broom, a deadly white fungus that deforms the trees, was responsible for almost destroying Brazil's cocoa crop in the early 1990s.
____(5) South America is not the only cocoa habitat threatened by parasitic infection.
____(6) Brazil now imports more chocolate than it exports.
____(7) The only solution to the dwindling cocoa supply is for scientists from all the producing regions to collaborate and find ways to make cocoa trees more resistant.
____(8) “It's only a matter of time before diseases like witches' broom and black pot rot endanger the global cocoa supply,” announced Dr. Raymond Schell at a conference on agricultural science last week.
____(9) The top-selling chocolate item in the United States is the Chocolate Easter Bunny.
____(10) The decline is due to climatic change, political turmoil and disease.
Exercise: Practice in Building Coherence 2
Consider the sentences below, and re-arrange them into a coherent paragraph by re-numbering them in the space provided. Mark with an “X” any sentence that does not directly relate to the main point of the paragraph.
____(1) We don't hang out with the same sorts of people, we don't live in the same sort of digs and the idea of dropping thousands of bucks on a handbag is beyond us.
____(2) Plenty of investors, however, can relate to Martha in one area: She didn't follow her own best advice.
____(3) In November of 2000, she emailed her broker saying she was nervous about the slide of the market and she wanted to take her money out of stocks and give it to a money manager; she never followed through on this hunch.
____(4) A good money manager would have sold the whole thing.
____(5) Martha does lovely arrangements with lysianthus.
____(6) He or she would have put Martha into mutual funds and, considering her age and her already huge stock market exposure, probably put a lot of her money into bonds and cash.
____(7) If Martha had followed her own instincts in November 2000, the ImClone affair, that led to her arrest, conviction, and eventual incarceration, would never have happened.
____(8) What would a money manager have done with the stock portfolio of a woman on the verge of 60 -- a portfolio chock full of not just ImClone, but stuff like Amazon, Lucent, Doubleclick and JDS Uniphase?
____(9) When it comes down to it, most of us don't share a lot of common ground with Martha Stewart.
 Elements of this section of this textbook are adapted from V. Zenari’s unpublished “Writing Coherent Paragraphs” (2011).
 The following two exercises were reproduced by permission of Prof. B. Schriner, Florida International University