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Ten Tips to Improving Writing Coherency

Using Coherence and Word Choice e-Comments

Coherence and Word Choice e-Comments

Ten Tips to Improving Writing Coherency

Writing coherency refers to how well sentences and paragraphs are organized into an understandable whole. Good writing coherency is reader-centered. From the reader’s point of view, the train of thought must be connected, easy to follow, and make sense. Incoherent writing is inconsiderate to the reader. If the writing lacks coherency, the reader’s comprehension and enjoyment of that writing will decrease. A reader may have to re-read, be forced to use too many context clues to understand what is being said, or make an undue amount of inferences.

To improve coherency, writers need to ensure that their writing has these characteristics:

1. Predictable Paragraph Organization To maintain optimal coherency, organize paragraphs in the way that readers are accustomed. For example, unless there is a compelling reason to do otherwise, place the topic sentence in the first position of the paragraph. The topic sentence appears in the first position of the paragraph 80% of the time in expository writing. Because of this high percentage, readers expect the main idea of the paragraph to be in this position. Similarly, the thesis statement appears 50% of the time as the last sentence in an essay introduction, so follow this practice as well.

Pennington Publishing's Teaching Essay Strategies

Teaching Essay Strategies

Additionally, the Ancient Greeks developed the rhetorical rules for our writing, and these rules dictate that the most important idea in any communication needs to be stated first. Organize paragraphs with customary and traditional structures to be considerate to your reader.

2. Comprehensible Sentence Structure- Again, toe the line with those Ancient Greeks. English follows suit by placing the most important words at the beginning of the sentence. In the sentence: “You need to mail that letter today,” the emphasis is on the action. In the sentence: “Today, you need to mail that letter,” the emphasis is on the time. English grammar is very flexible in its forms and so can emphasize words with many different grammatical constructions. See How to Improve Sentence Variety with Grammatical Sentence Openers for examples.

Vary the length of sentences. Charles Dickens can be difficult to read because of his notoriously long-winded sentences. A good rule of thumb is to never place two long sentences next to each other. Of course, short staccato sentences can get irritating, as well. Strive for balance in sentence length to increase reader understanding and concentration.

3. Repetition- Repeat key words, phrases, or clauses to build coherency. Martin Luther King, Jr. used the “I have a dream” clause nine different times in his short speech. Also, write with parallel grammatical structures such as in Abraham Lincoln’s “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Notice the repeated “_ed” past participles, each followed by prepositional phrases.

4. Effective Sentence Transitions- Use, but don’t over use, transition words and phrases at the beginnings of sentences to connect to previous thoughts. Remember that most transitions at the beginning of sentences are followed by a comma, except in  short sentences. A helpful list follows.

The author’s Teaching Essay Strategies provides 11 Transition Worksheets, one for each purpose. Each worksheet requires students to identify, select, and apply the

transition words in the context of sentences and paragraphs. Great practice! Check out the free samples below.

Get the Transition Worksheets FREE Resource:

Teaching Essay Strategies includes 42 essay strategy worksheets corresponding to teach the Common Core State Writing Standards, an e-comment bank of 438 prescriptive writing responses with an link to insert into Microsoft Word® for easy e-grading, 8 on-demand writing fluencies, 8 writing process essays (4 argumentative and 4 informative/explanatory), 64  sentence revision and 64 rhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, writing posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in this comprehensive writing curriculum.

5. Clear Pronouns- A pronoun takes the place of a proper (named) or common (unnamed) noun. Using clear pronoun references will improve reader understanding of your writing. Always place pronoun references close to the nouns which they represent. If in doubt, simply repeat the noun. For example, in the sentence: “The dog traveled over the hill, chased a bunny, drank from a stream, terrorized a stray cat, and than it returned home,” the it pronoun does not clearly describe the antecedent dog. The sentence would be more coherent as “The dog enjoyed many adventures before it returned home: traveling over a hill, chasing a bunny, drinking from a stream, and terrorizing a cat.”

6. Clear Modifiers- A modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that acts as an adjective or adverb to define or limit the meaning of another word or phrase. For example, in the sentence: “Thrown in the air, the dog fetched the Frisbee®,” the phrase “Thrown in the air” is a classic dangling modifier. The reader may be confused into thinking that the dog, not the disc, was the one thrown into the air. To prevent dangling modifiers, always place modifiers close to the nouns or verbs that they intend to modify. The above sentence would better be written as “Thrown in the air, the Frisbee® was fetched by the dog” (albeit in passive voice).

7. Precise Word Choice Use specific, rather than vague, meaningless words. For example, instead of “Many things caused the recession,” replace with “Decreasing consumer confidence and high gas prices caused the recession.” Use words that fit your audience. Avoid technical or academic language when simple words will suffice, unless your readers are well-acquainted with the terminology. Be courteous to your reader and define unfamiliar words to improve coherence.

8. Appropriate Conjunctions- The common coordinating conjunctions: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so (F.A.N.B.O.Y.S.) each have precise meanings and need to be used correctly to maintain coherency. For example, the sentence: “He needed money for paying expenses,” does not correctly use the conjunction for. The sentence suggests that money is the medium of exchange for paying expenses, rather than a necessary prerequisite for paying expenses. Using the conjunction so would create better sentence coherency as in “He needed money so he could pay expenses.”

9. Limited Passive Voice- In passive voice, the subject receives the action with the use of a passive verb. A passive verb combines a “to-be” verb with a past participle (_d, _ed, or _en ending). For example, is practiced, was doubted, had been eaten. Instead, use the active voice in which the subject does the action. For example, “John ran to the post office.” Passive voice can be used intentionally to emphasize objectivity, such as in “It has been shown in educational research that more women than men….” Otherwise, avoid the passive voice.

10. Brevity- Using concise language builds reader understanding. Readers lose focus, if the writing is verbose. Rather than “It would certainly be very nice if you would please consider it in your heart to take out the trash,” replace with the simple and to the point “Please take out the trash.”

Following are examples of an incoherent paragraph and a coherent revision of that same paragraph. Try revising the incoherent model, using the Ten Tips to Improve Writing Coherency before looking at the revision to see if you can apply these tips.

Incoherent Writing Model

Snow creates problems. Streets need shoveling. Snowplows cannot always access streets. Driveways are hard to clear. Many communities leave the expense of clearing snow up to the homeowner. Building up dangerously high on a roof, it can break roof framing. Snow may seem harmless. It can damage houses. Snow is always potentially hazardous. It can endanger people.

Coherent Revision

Snow creates two problems for homeowners. First, it requires shoveling to keep driveways and streets clear, but snowplows cannot always access them. Furthermore, many communities leave the expense of clearing snow up to the homeowner; thus some homeowners cannot afford the expense of hiring a snowplow. Second, snow may seem harmless, yet it is not. Snow can build up dangerously high on a roof and break roof framing. Always potentially hazardous, snow can damage houses and endanger those who live in them.

Also, check out Mark Pennington’s articles on writing unity and parallelism.

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How to Write Body Paragraphs

Many writers have not learned how to write body paragraphs for an essay, article, formal research paper, or business letter. All too often, students only received this limited instruction about how to write body paragraphs: “Write a topic sentence; write major detail sentences; then, support the major detail sentences with minor detail sentences.” Not much help with that limited instruction…

The following strategies will help you write learn how to write body paragraphs that will be appropriate to the writing task, provide pertinent evidence to prove your thesis, and also show off your writing skills. The FE SCALE C memory trick will help remind you of the evidence strategies you need to use on timed writing tasks. Not every evidence strategy fits the purpose of every writing task, so learn and practice these options to increase your writing skill-set.

Body paragraphs are organized around the topic sentence, which is the main point, reason, or argument to prove the thesis statement. Always place your topic sentence at the beginning of each body paragraph. Writing research indicates that the topic sentence is placed at the beginning of the body paragraph 80% of the time in published works, so don’t re-invent the wheel. Write in the way your reader expects to read.

Then, use the FE SCALE C evidence strategies to provide the evidence to support the topic sentence. Think of writing body paragraphs much as a prosecuting attorney uses evidence to convince a jury that the defendant is guilty of the crime. Connect your body paragraph evidence strategies with effective transition words to maintain coherence. The body paragraph should flow together as one whole. Every word should move the reader toward the demanded verdict, which is your thesis statement.

Use a variety of evidence to support your topic sentence in each paragraph. I suggest that two or three types of evidence per body paragraph is most effective. A good attorney uses a wide variety of evidence. Limiting evidence to one form will weaken your overall argument and not win your conviction. Think of the O.J. Simpson’s “Trial of the Century.” The prosecution overly relied on DNA evidence and failed to convince its jury. All it took was “If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit” to provide enough doubt to the jury to acquit the defendant.

After composing the topic sentence, flesh out each evidence strategy in a compound-complex sentence or two separate sentences. Then, analyze the evidence in another sentence. Of course, sometimes it is also appropriate to do the reverse: state a major detail that addresses the topic sentence and then provide the evidence strategy to support that detail.

A good body paragraph might be structured in this way:

  • Topic Sentence

  • Evidence Strategy #1 Sentence

  • Analysis Sentence

  • Evidence Strategy #2 Sentence

  • Analysis Sentence

  • Major Detail

  • Evidence Strategy #3 Sentence

Types of Evidence: FE SCALE C

1. Fact means something actually done or said.

Neil Armstrong was the first person to step on the moon. He said, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

2. Example is a part of something used to explain the whole thing.

Peas, beans, and corn are examples of vegetables.

3. Statistic is an amount, fraction, or percentage learned from scientific research.

The world has over 7 billion people; half live in Asia; only 5% live in the United States.

4. Comparison means to show how one thing is like or unlike another.

Both automobiles are available with hybrid engines, but only one has an all-electric plug-in option.

5. Authority is an expert which can be quoted to support a claim or a topic.

According to the Surgeon General of the United States, “Smoking is the chief cause of lung cancer.”

6. Logic is deductive (general to specific) or inductive (specific to general) reasoning.

All fruits have vitamins and apples are fruits, so apples have vitamins. The first 10 crayons I picked were red, so the whole box must be filled with red crayons.

7. Experience is a personal observation of or participation in an event.

Hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back requires careful planning and takes most of the day.

8. Counterclaim is the argument against one’s point of view, which the writer then minimizes or refutes (proves wrong).

Some argue that a high protein diet is healthy because… However, most doctors disagree due to…

E-Comments for Essay Body Paragraphs

Essay Body Paragraphs e-Comments

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a set of 14 prescriptive e-comments to respond to student body paragraphs? Click HERE to get these comments along with directions about how to insert them permanently into Microsoft Word.

Want to download and print 8 colorful types of evidence posters with explanations and examples? Click Types of Evidence Posters.

Teachers may also be interested in these three articles: How to Improve Writing StyleHow to Write an Introduction and How to Write a Conclusion. Each article includes a link to different writing posters. All are free to download, print, and use as reference tools for your students.

Pennington Publishing's Teaching Essay Strategies

Teaching Essay Strategies

Need the step-by-step resources to teach the argumentative (CCSS W 1.0) and informational-explanatory (CCSS W 2.0) essays? Find 8 complete writing process essays (4 argumentative and 4 informational-explanatory) with accompanying readings, 42 sequenced writing strategy worksheets, 64 sentence revision lessons, 64 rhetorical stance openers, additional remedial worksheets, writing fluency practice, posters, and editing resources in Teaching Essay Strategies. Also get the e-comments download of 438 writing comments to improve written response and student revisions.

Now you have the right strategies to make your case, using a variety of effective evidence. Using the FE SCALE C evidence strategies will help you convince your jury.

Check out this complete writing process essay to see a sample of the resources provided in Teaching Essay StrategiesThe download includes writing prompt, paired reading resource, brainstorm activity, prewriting graphic organizer, rough draft directions, response-editing activity, and analytical rubric.

Get the Writing Process Essay FREE Resource:

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