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clear communication: coherence

The term coherence refers to the smooth flow of ideas in a text. There are two main strategies that will make your writing coherent: organizing your ideas in a logical order, and connecting them effectively by using transition words and phrases.

Logical order

When your ideas are set down in a logical order, it is much easier for your reader to follow your train of thought. An obvious example is process writing: if you are telling someone how to do something, you have to list the steps in the right order so that the reader can follow them.

There are several ways to order ideas, depending on the type of text you are writing. Here are a few of the most common.

Process writing uses time order (also called chronological order). Start at the beginning and list each step in the exact order in which it must be done.

Narration also uses time order. Start at the beginning and list events in the order in which they happened.

Description uses spatial order, in which details are organized according to their physical location. For example, if you are describing a place, instead of hopping about the scene randomly, you might start at the left and move across to the middle and then to the right. Or you might start with the foreground and move to the background, or vice versa.

Cause/effect and argument are often organized in climactic order, moving from the least important cause, effect or argument to the most important.

Transition

Transition words and phrases connect ideas and guide your readers from one thought to another in a text. Words and phrases like for example, also, but, first and then all help to show the logical connection between one idea and the next.

When choosing a transition word or phrase, you must know what the relationship is between your ideas. If you are adding a similar idea, you might use also. If you are trying to show how two ideas are different, you might use but or however. If you are giving an example, you might use for example or for instance.

Let’s look at some other common transition words and phrases to see what they do:

  • as a result: shows the consequence of what was said before
  • because: introduces the reason for something
  • finally: introduces a conclusion or the last step in a list
  • in addition: shows the addition of one point to another
  • in fact: emphasizes the point you are making
  • on the other hand: shows a complete change in point of view
  • next: introduces another step in a list
  • so that: shows the result of what was said before

Transition words and phrases are used to connect both sentences and paragraphs. To make smooth transitions between sentences, place transition words or phrases at the beginning or in the middle of your sentences. For the same effect with paragraphs, place transition words and phrases at the beginning or end of your paragraphs.

A word of caution: Just because you can put a transition word somewhere in your sentence or paragraph does not mean you have to. Use one of these devices when it helps to make the relationship between your ideas clearer for your readers, but do not overload your texts with them. Too many transition words will make your writing heavy and difficult to read.

See CLEAR COMMUNICATION: TRANSITION WORDS for a more complete list of transition words.