Three-Part Series on Writing Clearly and Concisely: Part I – Coherent Paragraphs Are Better Than Cohesive Ones

By David Chrisinger

My hometown, Rhinelander, Wisconsin, is home to the legendary woodland creature, the Hodag. The Hodag is a folkloric animal that is said to have the head of a frog, the face of a giant elephant, thick short legs, huge claws, the back of a dinosaur, and a long tail with a spike at the end. If you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of the Hodag as you hike, bike, paddle, shop, dine, and relax in Rhinelander. Relaxation is defined as the act of releasing tension and returning to equilibrium. If something is said to be out of equilibrium, it means that it’s out of balance, which is something you need to have if you’re going to be good at gymnastics. My high school in Rhinelander had a gymnastics team, and our mascot was, of course, the Hodag.

Easy to follow, right? No? What do you mean? Each sentence flows directly into the next. It’s a perfect example of cohesion! Isn’t that important?

In all seriousness, cohesion in writing is nice, of course, but what’s even more important is coherence. What’s the difference? In a cohesive piece of writing, the sentences fit together one by one in the way pieces of a jigsaw puzzle do. In a coherent piece of writing, on the other hand, all the sentences in a paragraph add up to a whole, the way all the pieces in a puzzle add up to make the picture shown on the box.

The most powerful tool I know of to ensure coherence and a logical transition between sentences is known as the “old-to-new” sequence.

With the possible exception of the topic sentence of you paragraph, you should try to begin each sentence with “old” information; that is, something the reader already knows. While the information may be familiar because readers have just read it in a preceding paragraph or sentences, it may also be familiar because it’s general knowledge.

You can then end the sentence with something complex or that the reader might not yet know. Readers always prefer to read what’s easy before what’s hard, and what’s familiar and simple is easier to understand than what’s new and complex. When this sequence is followed consistently, your paragraphs will be coherent.

Let’s take a look at this tool in action (Note: the bolded and italicized phrases are “old” information):

Given the increased variety of support and widened reach of care available to veterans, their involvement in Department of Veterans Affairs’ treatment programs is worryingly low. This low participation rate, coupled with an increased suicide rate, signals that many veterans are not getting the help they need from VA’s available resources. All these resources are opt-in, which means that veterans must actively seek them out. There are, however, many factors that prevent veterans from seeking out care. These include, but are not limited to, a general distrust of mental health professionals, a lack of awareness of mental health conditions, a belief that the condition is not severe enough to warrant treatment, or a belief that by seeking help they will be viewed negatively, as weak or out of control.

I can’t stress this enough: readers need some of the old, simple information—even if it’s just a repetition of key words or a phrase—included in nearly every sentence.

Notice, too, that I didn’t have to use a single transitional phrase. No “in addition,” or “moreover.” No “on the contrary” or “consequently.” The “old-to-new” sequence may take a bit more work, but it’s definitely worth it!

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David Chrisinger is a Foresight and Strategic Planning Analyst at the U.S. Government Accountability Office. For six years, he also taught public policy writing at Johns Hopkins University, and in 2017, he wrote PUBLIC POLICY WRITING THAT MATTERS, a book for everyone passionate about using writing to effect real and lasting change.