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Lecture: Writing Strong Paragraphs, Coherence

man climbing a rock wallCreating paragraph coherence is all about being a good guide. Writers use several tools to help provide this guidance: transitional expressions, pronouns, repeated key words and phrases, echo words, and implicit logical connections between ideas. In this lesson, you will learn to use these tools effectively.

What does coherence mean?

"Coherence" refers to the logical flow of ideas in a paragraph. A paragraph is coherent when each sentence leads smoothly into the next one through the use of transitional expressions, logical relation of ideas, repetition of key words, and/or the use of pronouns to refer to a previous subject. A paragraph is not coherent if there are inadequate connections between ideas causing the reader to get lost or to struggle to figure out the author's intentions.

Creating coherence through transitional expressions

One way to improve paragraph coherence is through the use of transitional expressions between sentences. Transitional expressions are words used to signify the type of connection between sentences; they indicate that the next sentence will be an example, or the effect of a cause just stated, an explanation, or an expansion of thought on the previous idea, etc.

There are many transitional expressions, but don't feel you need to memorize them all to create coherence. Knowing a handful of expressions will help you in most situations, and opening a writer's handbook to a list of expressions, or simply "googling" "transitions" or "transitional expressions" should help you find what you need if you get stuck.

The most common are

for example (prepositional phrase) 
for instance (prepositional phrase) 
although (subordinating conjunction) 
however (sentence adverb) 
but (coordinating conjunction) 
because (subordinating conjunction)
moreover (sentence adverb) 
therefore (sentence adverb)
furthermore (sentence adverb)
for this reason (prepositional phrase)

Be careful, however, not to overuse transitional expressions. Save them for significant connections between ideas that you want to call special attention to. Overuse can be distracting.

Coherence through logic

Often sentences have implicit logical connections that help the reader follow the thread of a discussion or argument. When a writer picks up on a subject that has been established in the previous sentence, coherence is created. Consider the example below:

Chinatown offers one of the largest Asian American grocery districts in the country. Skinned animals hang in windows of butcher shops here like clothes hang in the windows of suburban department stores.

Though no transitional expression is used, the passage is coherent. It is clear that the writer is continuing a discussion of grocery stores in Chinatown, offering an interesting and distinctive detail about these stores.

A good way to test the coherence of your paragraph is to examine each sentence and ask yourself what your reader would expect you to say next based on that sentence. Given the first sentence in the passage above, a reader might ask "What are these stores like?" or "What is distinctive about these stores that draws Asian-Americans?" The next sentence supplies an acceptable answer to that question, and so the passage is coherent.

Coherence through repetition

Key Words

Key words are the words carrying most significance in a paragraph— the key words are those words a writer wants the reader to focus on as the paragraph progresses. In the following exerpt from a paragraph on sports tourism, note the key words used by the author:

Consistent with the results of other studies, most sport tourists tend to be between the ages of 18 and 44, male, and relatively affluent. Again, as with the first sample (Gibson & Yiannakis, 1992), a notable group of men and women in late adulthood chose to be active sport tourists. This information can be readily demonstrated by the winter-month use of golf courses in the southeastern United States by "snowbirds." For recreation agencies in these areas, winter-month use by retirees is of prime importance. For leisure education practitioners, such activity patterns not only dispel stereotypes attributed to older adults but also support the idea of teaching sport skills that can be practiced throughout a person's life. The majority of active sport tourist research has focused on people who participate in one specific sport. . . (Gibson)

These key words remind the reader that the details discussed all elaborate on the subject of sports tourism.

Echo Words & Phrases

Echo words and phrases allow writers to remind the reader of the topic being discussed without becoming repetitive, as too much repetition of the same words can be distracting and even irritating to a reader. Echo words are actually synonyms for the key word, but they can also be phrases. Consider the echo words in the following paragraph about tourists and souvenirs:

The steady production of souvenirs throughout the mid-20th century has created a well that collectors can tap. The objects that have proved the most desirable in recent years are ones dating from the 1920s through the 1960s. For collectors, the good news is that the tablecloths, tumblers, snow globes, ashtrays, charm bracelets, and other objects from this period were produced in such large quantities that surviving examples are still easy to find and affordable. Prices range from a few dollars to a few hundred, with many falling between $20 and $40. (Proeller)

The key word in this paragraph is "souvenirs." To avoid repetition of this word, however, the author uses substitutes: "objects" and "examples." Note, too, that the author adds adjectives and modifying phrases to the echo words to further clarify her meaning, as in "other objects from this period," and "surviving examples." Echo words and phrases are far more desirable than general pronouns like "this" and "it" because they do add so much clarity to the sentence. In fact, using these general pronouns can often get developing writers into trouble with pronoun reference problems, so an echo word or phrase is a far better choice for a subject.


Pronouns have a place in creating coherence, however. Pronouns can help a writer avoid repetition of a subject when there is no confusion about who or what that subject is.

And then there are those collectors who find the whole vintage-souvenir genre irresistible, and they collect with wild abandon. (Proeller)

If there is potential confusion about the word the pronoun refers to, then using an echo word or phrase is probably preferable.

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