Coherence in Composition

Guiding the Reader to Understand a Piece of Writing or Speech

In Writing Tools (2006), Roy Peter Clark says, "When the big parts fit, we call that good feeling coherence; when sentences connect, we call it cohesion.". (Andrew Baker/Getty Images)

In composition, coherence refers to the meaningful connections that readers or listeners perceive in a written or oral text, often called linguistic or discourse coherence, and can occur on either the local or global level, depending on the audience and writer.

Coherence is directly increased by the amount of guidance a writer provides to the reader, either through context clues or through direct use of transitional phrases to direct the reader through an argument or narrative.

Word choice and sentence and paragraph structure influence the coherence of a written or spoken piece, but cultural knowledge, or understanding of the processes and natural orders on the local and global levels, can also serve as cohesive elements of writing. 

Guiding the Reader

It is important in composition to maintain the coherence of a piece by leading the reader or listener through the narrative or process by providing cohesive elements to the form. In "Marking Discourse Coherence," Uta Lenk states that the reader or listener's understanding of coherence "is influenced by the degree and kind of guidance given by the speaker: the more guidance is given, the easier it is for the hearer to establish the coherence according to the speaker's intentions."

Transitional words and phrases like "therefore," "as a result," "because" and the like serve to move connect one posit to the next, either through cause and effect or correlation of data, while other transitional elements like combining and connecting sentences or repetition of keywords and structures can similarly guide the reader to make connections in tandem with their cultural knowledge of the topic.

Thomas S. Kane describes this cohesive element as "flow" in "The New Oxford Guide to Writing," wherein these "invisible links which bind the sentences of a paragraph can be established in two basic ways." The first, he says, is to establish a plan in the first of the paragraph and introduce each new idea with a word marking its place in this plan while the second concentrates on the successive linking of sentences to develop the plan through connecting each sentence to the one before it.

Constructing Coherence Relations

Coherence in composition and constructionist theory relies on a readers' local and global understanding of the written and spoken language, inferring the binding elements of text that help guide them through understanding the author's intentions. 

As Arthur C. Graesser, Peter Wiemer-Hasting and Katka Wiener-Hastings put it in "constructing Inferences and Relations During Text Comprehension," local coherence "is achieved if the reader can connect the incoming sentence to information in the previous sentence or to the content in working memory." On the other hand, global coherence comes from the major message or point of the structure of the sentence or from an earlier statement in the text. 

If not driven by these global or local understanding, the sentence is typically given coherence by explicit features like anaphoric references, connectives, predicates, signaling devices and transitional phrases. 

In any case, coherence is a mental process and the Coherence Principle accounts for "the fact that we do not communicate by verbal means only," according to Edda Weigand's "Language as Dialogue: From Rules to Principles." Ultimately, then, it comes down to the listener or leader's own comprehension skills, their interaction with the text, that influences the true coherence of a piece of writing.