I. What is Coherence?
Coherence describes the way anything, such as an argument (or part of an argument) “hangs together.” If something has coherence, its parts are well-connected and heading in the same direction. Without coherence, any discussion is difficult for a reader to follow and may not make sense. It’s an extremely important quality of formal writing.
Coherence is relevant to every level of organization, from the sentence level up to the complete argument. However, we’ll be focused on the paragraph level in this article. That’s because:
- Sentence-level coherence is a matter of grammar, and it would take too long to explain all the features of coherent grammar.
- Most people can already write a fairly coherent sentence, even if their grammar is not perfect.
- When you write coherent paragraphs, the argument as a whole will usually seem coherent to your readers.
Although coherence is primarily a feature of arguments, you may also hear people talk about the “coherence” of a story, poem, etc. However, in this context the term is extremely vague, so we’ll focus on formal essays for the sake of simplicity.
Coherence is, in the end, a matter of perception. This means it’s a completely subjective judgement. A piece of writing is coherent if and only if the reader thinks it is.
II. Examples of Coherence
There are many distinct features that help create a sense of coherence. Let’s look at an extended example and go through some of the features that make it seem coherent. Most people would agree that this is a fairly coherent paragraph:
Credit cards are convenient, but dangerous. People often get them in order to make large purchases easily without saving up lots of money in advance. This is especially helpful for purchases like cars, kitchen appliances, etc., that you may need to get without delay. However, this convenience comes at a high price: interest rates. The more money you put on your credit card, the more the bank or credit union will charge you for that convenience. If you’re not careful, credit card debt can quickly break the bank and leave you in very dire economic circumstances!
- Topic Sentence. The paragraph starts with a very clear, declarative topic sentence, and the rest of the paragraph follows that sentence. Everything in the paragraph is tied back to the statement in the beginning.
- Key terms. The term “credit card” appears repeatedly in this short paragraph. This signals the reader that the whole paragraph is about the subject of credit cards. Similarly, the word convenience (and related words) are also peppered throughout. In addition, the key term “danger” appears in the topic sentence and is then explained fully as the paragraph goes on.
- Defined terms. For most readers, the terms in this paragraph will be quite clear and will not need to be defined. Some readers, however, might not understand the term “interest rates,” and they would need an explanation. To these readers, the paragraph will seem less coherent!
Clear transitions. Each sentence flows into the next quite easily, and readers can follow the line of logic without too much effort.
III. The Importance of Coherence
Say you’re reading a piece of academic writing – maybe a textbook. As you read, you find yourself drifting off, having to read the same sentence over and over before you understand it. Maybe, after a while, you get frustrated and give up on the chapter. What happened?
Nine times out of ten, this is a symptom of incoherence. Your brain is unable to find a unified argument or narrative in the book. This may become frustrating and often happens when a book is above your current level of understanding. To someone else, the writing might seem perfectly coherent, because they understand the concepts involved. But from your perspective, the chapter seems incoherent. And as a result, you don’t get as much out of it as you otherwise would.
How can you avoid this in your own writing? How can you make sure that readers don’t misunderstand you (or just give up altogether)? The answer is to work on coherent writing. Coherence is perhaps the most important feature of argumentative writing. Without it, everything falls apart. If an argument is not coherent, it doesn’t matter how good the evidence is, or how beautiful the writing is: an incoherent argument will never persuade anyone or even hold their attention.
V. Examples in Literature and Scholarship
Since coherence is subjective, people will disagree about the examples. This is especially true in scholarly fields, where authors are writing for a very specific audience of experts; anyone outside that audience is likely to see the work as incoherent. For example, the various fields of analytic philosophy are a great place to look for coherence in scholarly work. Analytic philosophers are trained to write very carefully, with all the steps in the argument carefully laid out ahead of time. So their arguments usually have a remarkable internal coherence. However, analytic philosophy is a very obscure topic, and very few people are trained to understand the terms these scholars use! Thus, ironically, some of the most coherent writers in academia (from an expert perspective) usually come across as incoherent to the majority of readers.
For writing this essay, journalist Jill Burcum was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in the editorial writing category. An excellent example of coherence in journalistic writing, the editorial deals with the shabby federal schools that are meant for Native Americans on reservations. The essay’s paragraphs are much shorter than they would be in an essay. Yet each one still revolves around a single, tightly focused set of ideas. You can find key concepts (such as “neglect”) that run as themes throughout the piece. The whole editorial is also full of smooth and clear transitions.
VI. Examples in Media and Pop Culture
You can often see something like argumentative coherence in political satire. Good satire always focuses on a single question and lampoons it in a highly coherent manner. Watch, for example, Jon Stewart’s opening monologues on The Daily Show. Whatever your opinion on Stewart’s politics, it’s hard to argue with the fact that he uses terms carefully. He transitions smoothly and focuses on a single, tightly controlled set of concepts in each monologue.
Sports debates can also provide a good example of coherence. When you watch a show about sports (like SportsCenter or First Take), pay attention to the attributes of coherence. How do the hosts and guests use their terms? Do they repeat key terms? Do they start each monologue with a “topic sentence”? Do they stick to one topic, or do they go off on tangents?
VII. Related Terms
“Cogency” sounds like “coherence,” but means convincing or persuasive. The two terms are related, though: an argument cannot be cogent if it’s not coherent, because coherence is essential to persuasion. However, an argument could be coherent but not cogent (i.e. it’s clear, unified, and easy to read, but the argument does not persuade its reader).
Focus is also related to coherence. Often, coherence problems emerge when the focus is too broad. When the focus is broad, there are just too many parts to cover all at once, and writers struggle to maintain coherence.