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Coherence and cohesion: Linking words and ideas, flow, transitions

To begin, here is a link to a PPT presentation by the Duke University Writing Studio that explains the concepts -- and importance -- of issues such as coherence and cohesion.

Next, let us think about our audience and how they judge our writing.
 
Reader Expectation Theory tells us that readers prefer the grammatical subject of sentences to also be the topic of the sentence. This is not always the case, however, and sometimes we intentionally create sentences in which the topic is not the subject (in order to increase cohesion, for example).
 
Using the following three steps, you can revise passages in your writing to improve clarity and coherence.

1. For each sentence, underline the characters and circle their actions.
2. Revise the sentences, starting each with a character.
3. Pick one character and make it the topic of most of your sentences.

Let's look at an example of a paragraph in need of revision.

"Many issues other than science, domestic politics in particular, faced Truman when he was considering the Oppenheimer committee's recommendation to stop the hydrogen bomb project. A Sino-Soviet bloc had been proclaimed by Russia and China, so the Cold War was becoming an issue. Support for Truman's foreign policy was shrinking among Republican leaders in Congress. And the first Russian atom bomb test made the public demand a strong response from him. Truman's conclusion that he could not afford letting the public think that Russia had been allowed to be first in developing the most powerful weapon yet was an inevitable one. In retrospect, the risk in the Oppenheimer recommendation was worth taking according to some historians, but the political issues that Truman had to face were too powerful to ignore."

Now let's identify the characters and their action in each sentence:

Sentence Number
Subject
Action
1a
1b
1c
Truman
he
the Oppenheimer committee
faced
was considering
recommendation (recommended)
2
Russia and China
proclaimed
3
Republican leaders
(were not) support(ing)
4
the public
demand
5a
5b
5c
Truman
the public
Russia
conclusion (concluded)
think
developing (developed)

6a
6b

some historians
Truman

(think)
face(d)

Now, if we revise each sentence to make the character also the grammatical subject of most (but not all) sentences, and if we put the action into the verb (instead of into a nominalization), here is what we would get:

1. Truman faced many issues other than science, domestic politics in particular, when he was considering the Oppenheimer committee's recommendation to stop the hydrogen bomb project.

2. Russia and China had just proclaimed a Sino-Soviet bloc, making the Cold War into an issue.

3.Support for Truman's foreign policy was shrinking among Republican leaders in Congress.

4. After the first Russian atom bomb test, the public demanded a strong response from him.

5. Truman inevitably concluded that he could not afford to let the public think that Russia had been allowed to be first in developing the most powerful weapon yet.

6. In retrospect, some historians think that Truman should have taken the Oppenheimer committee's recommendation, but that the political issues that Truman had to face were too powerful to ignore.

The final step is to try to create consistent topic strings; in this case, making "Truman" the subject of as many sentences as possible without sounding contrived. Notice that I have added "signals" for readers (such as numbering the various issues that Truman had to face) to make my writing more coherent.

"Truman faced many issues other than science -- domestic politics in particular -- when he was considering the Oppenheimer committee's recommendation to stop the hydrogen bomb project. First, Truman had to address the Cold War, as Russia and China had just proclaimed a Sino-Soviet bloc. Second, Truman was loosing support from Republican leaders in Congress for his foreign policy. Third, after the first Russian atom bomb test, Truman felt that he had to respond to the public's demand for a strong response. Truman inevitably concluded that he could not afford to let the public think that Russia had been allowed to be first in developing the most powerful weapon yet. In retrospect, although some historians think that Truman should have taken the Oppenheimer committee's recommendation, the political issues that Truman had to face were too powerful for him to ignore."

Try this exercise with some of your writing, and see how much more clear your writing can become.