Welcome to another post in the Content Creator Basics series. Here, we’ll share our go-to tips for flexing your freelance writer muscles—whether you’re writing content for someone else or for your own blog. Check in each month for more tips to sharpen your online content writing skills.
Most writers have had this problem at least once: their idea makes sense in their head but not on paper. If you’re at a loss for how to make your ideas easier for readers to understand, start by revising for coherence and cohesion. These two principles work together to guide readers through texts without ever losing them.
What Are Coherence and Cohesion?
Coherence and cohesion are usually described by one word: flow. Writers know that they want their writing to flow, or to move naturally from idea to idea without readers feeling lost, confused, or whiplashed. However, many writers don’t consciously know how to achieve flow and instead rely on instinct, which can be unreliable. After all, if something you wrote makes sense to you, you may have a hard time understanding why it doesn’t make sense to someone else.
Instead of playing it by ear, focus on coherence and cohesion so you know what readers need.
What Is Coherence?
Coherence is “systematic or logical connection or consistency,” according to Merriam-Webster. In other words, a text is coherent if the ideas in it actually make sense, or if readers understand each new piece of information that the writer gives them.
What Is Cohesion?
Cohesion is “the act or state of sticking together tightly.” If a text is cohesive, each thought leads to the next thought.
How Do You Build Coherence?
To make a text coherent, you need to do these things:
- Put your ideas in order.
- Make sure you don’t miss any thoughts, steps, or explanations.
- Cut unneeded content that distracts from the ideas that matter.
Let’s get into the details.
Put Your Ideas in Order
When you put your ideas in order, you make sure that you carefully present new information to readers. This way, you give readers a chance to understand each new idea instead of receiving information without context.
Remember that readers tend to understand writing best when it moves from old information to new information. If you start with information that’s familiar to readers, you can lead them to information that’s unfamiliar without trouble.
The following is a passage from a blog about water heater explosions that doesn’t have its ideas in order:
When water gets hot, it expands, exerting pressure on the tank. When a water heater explodes, it’s generally because the water in the heater was too hot, which puts the tank under too much pressure. Eventually, the water will put enough pressure on the tank to rupture it. Because the water doesn’t have enough room to fully expand, it cannot boil into steam. The water stays in its liquid state, getting hotter and hotter and bigger and bigger.
We can revise it by rearranging the information so that it starts with information readers are most familiar with. Since this blog’s title is “Preventing Water Heater Explosions: What You Need to Know,” the familiar information that readers will expect to see first is about water heaters, so let’s start there:
When a water heater explodes, it’s generally because the water in the heater was too hot, which puts the tank under too much pressure. When water gets hot, it expands, exerting pressure on the tank. Because the water doesn’t have enough room to fully expand, it cannot boil into steam. The water stays in its liquid state, getting hotter and hotter and bigger and bigger. Eventually, the water will put enough pressure on the tank to rupture it.
In this revised version, we start with information about water heater explosions, then lead to new information about how the explosion occurs.
As you write, make sure to lead readers from old and familiar information to new, unfamiliar information.
Don’t Miss Any Steps
Once your information is in order, you need to make sure that nothing is missing. This is where many writers struggle — since they know the missing information, their brain fills in the gaps as they read.
Here’s an example of a passage with a missing piece of information:
Dark chocolate is known for its antioxidant properties that promote heart health. Consequently, 75% dark chocolate is the perfect blend of bitter and sweet.
Here’s the revised version:
Dark chocolate is known for its antioxidant properties that promote heart health. Consequently, if you wish to indulge in chocolate, we recommend choosing a dark chocolate, especially 75% dark, which is the perfect blend of bitter and sweet.
To catch missing information, try reading out loud or having a new person read your work to identify the gaps.
Cut Unneeded Content
Sometimes a piece will have all the information it needs in the right order, but readers will still have a hard time following it. This may be because the text has too much extra information.
Extra content can get in the way of your argument and distract from your main point. Here’s an example:
Follow your garage door opener remote’s programming instructions thoroughly, including swapping out the battery if you can’t detect any activity in the remote. If your remote won’t work, try getting a new one before fixing the garage door. Many modern vehicles also come with built-in garage door remotes that you may also want to try to program before you commit to a mechanical solution. A replacement remote is likely to be a much easier fix than examining your full door setup.
In this passage, readers may not know what they’re supposed to focus on, and they can’t focus on everything — there’s too much information for that to be possible. Here’s a revised version that cuts out the fluff:
Follow your garage door opener remote’s programming instructions thoroughly, including swapping out the battery if you can’t detect any activity in the remote. If your remote won’t work, try getting a new one before fixing the garage door. A replacement remote is likely to be a much easier fix than examining your full door setup.
If you need tips for removing fluff, try this WritersDomain blog post.
Coherence matters within paragraphs, but it also matters within sections and within a piece as a whole. You need to have all your ideas in the right order without extra information for readers to understand your work easily.
To check for coherence in your text, try reverse outlining. Generally, writers make an outline of their text as a planning tool before they write, but doing it after can help you understand your text better. Take a look at your draft, and make a new outline based on what you actually wrote, not on what you planned to write. Once you’ve gone through and noted the main ideas in your new outline, you can rearrange the text as needed.
How Do You Build Cohesion?
Once your ideas are in order without extra or missing pieces, you can build cohesion by making sure that each idea leads to the next one. The best way to understand cohesion is to think about showing readers how each thought relates to the ideas before and after it. Without cohesion, a text sounds like this:
You caught your dog drinking from the toilet. You may be horrified or embarrassed, but this happens to most dog owners eventually. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. You may not be sure about what to do next. Is the toilet water safe? Why would your dog drink toilet water when you keep his water bowl full? How can you stop it? What you decide to do about this situation depends a lot on your personality and how determined your dog is.
In this passage, each thought stands on its own. It kind of sounds like a bullet list that’s been transcribed into a paragraph — there’s no connection between each idea.
You can build cohesion through many tools, including parallelism. If your headings and lists are parallel, readers understand that each of these items is considered the same as the other items. They understand that each item has equal weight and is part of a whole. You can also build cohesion by being mindful about when you split your paragraphs: keep like information together so that readers understand that the ideas are related.
However, your best tool for building cohesion is proper transitions. The entire purpose of transitions is to show the relationships between ideas.
Here’s that same passage we had above, but with transitions added:
So you caught your dog drinking from the toilet. While you may be horrified or embarrassed, rest assured that this happens to most dog owners eventually — it’s nothing to be ashamed of. However, you may not be sure about what to do next. Is the toilet water safe? Why would your dog drink toilet water when you keep his water bowl full? How can you stop it? What you decide to do about this situation depends a lot on your personality and how determined your dog is.
If you’re struggling to find the right transition, check out the table in this WritersDomain blog post that groups transition words by the relationship they show.
Don’t let your readers get lost! As you revise your work, be it a blog for WritersDomain or your novel, keep coherence and cohesion in mind so your writing flows naturally from idea to idea, pulling your readers along with it. If you have further ideas about writing with coherence and cohesion, tell us your tricks in the comments.