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Revising for Cohesion

Summary:

Proofreading is primarily about searching your writing for errors, both grammatical and typographical, before submitting your paper for an audience (a teacher, a publisher, etc.). Use this resource to help you find and fix common errors.

Contributors: Jaclyn M. Wells, Morgan Sousa, Mia Martini, Allen Brizee, Ashley Velázquez, and Maryam Ghafoor
Last Edited: 2017-02-06 09:49:28

Writing a cohesive paper takes time and revision. This resource will focus primarily on topic sentences that begin each paragraph and on topics, or main points, within a paragraph. This resource will also enable students to look closely at their sentences and see how each sentence relates to another within a paragraph. This material is adapted from Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, by Joseph Williams.

Principles

Tip: Create a list of words to draw from that intuitively tells the reader what to focus on. If your words progress from “investigate, remedy, resolve” or “negate, discover, re-invent” the reader should be able to follow the line of action and they will feel like your ideas cohere.

Exercise: Diagnosis, Analysis, Revision

Diagnosis

  1. Underline the first few words of every sentence in a paragraph, ignoring short introductory phrases such as "In the beginning," or "For the most part."
  2. If you can, underline the first few words of every clause. (Remember that a clause has a subject and verb)

Analysis

  1. Read your underlined words. Is there a consistent set of related topics?
  2. Will your reader see these connections among the topics?
  3. Imagine that the passage has a title. The words in the title should identify what should be the topics of most of the sentences.
  4. Decide what you will focus on in each paragraph.

Revision

  1. In most sentences, make your topics subjects that do the action in the sentences.
  2. Move your topics to the beginning of your sentences. Avoid hiding your topic behind long introductory phrases or clauses.

Sample Passage

Topics are crucial for readers because readers depend on topics to focus their attention on particular ideas toward the beginning of sentences. Topics tell readers what a whole passage is "about." If readers feel that a sequence of topics is coherent, then they will feel they are moving through a paragraph from a cumulatively coherent point of view. But if throughout the paragraph readers feel that its topics shift randomly, then they have to begin each sentence out of context, from no coherent point of view. When that happens, readers feel dislocated, disoriented, and out of focus.

Analysis of the Sample Passage:

1. Read your underlined words. Is there a consistent set of related topics?

Here are some significant words from the clauses that are underlined in the above example: topics, readers, topics, readers, they, readers, they, readers. Do these words help guide your reader along?

2. Will your reader see these connections among the topics?

Utilize repetition and patterns of progression. What this sample passage does really well is that it works with repetition. It also has a pattern of progression: in the first sentence, the phrase, “topics are crucial” is used and then the writer explains how topics are crucial in the rest of this sentence and the next. In terms of repetition, the phrase “readers feel that” is used twice. The third time it is used, there’s a variation to the pattern. This variation is direct, concise, and surprising: “Readers feel dislocated,” begins this clause.

3. Imagine that the passage has a title. The words in the title should identify what should be the topics of most of the sentences.

Sample Title: “How Topics Coherently Guide the Reader” Do the themes in the above passage match with this title?

4. Decide what you will focus on in each paragraph.

Think about the importance of your topics and what happens to the paragraph if these topics are not utilized. In the sample passage, the highlighted phrase seems out of place. Consider this revision:

Topics are crucial for readers. Topics tell readers what a whole passage is "about." Readers depend on topics to focus their attention on particular ideas toward the beginning of sentences. If readers feel that a sequence of topics is coherent, then they will feel they are moving through a paragraph from a cumulatively coherent point of view.

In this revision, the phrase “what a passage is ‘about,’” comes before “Readers depend…” This coheres better than the initial draft because the writer sets the reader up for a definition, or in-depth explanation of what the word “about”’ means.

Questions to ask yourself as you revise

On a sentence level:

1. Do your sentences "hang together"? Readers must feel that sentences in a paragraph are not just individually clear, but are unified with each other. Readers should be able to move easily from one sentence to the next, feeling that each sentence "coheres" with the one before and after it.

One way of thinking about this is as if you are giving your readers sign posts or clues they can follow throughout your passage. These will act as signals that guide the reader into your argument.

2. Does the sentence begin with information that’s familiar to the reader? Readers will be familiar with your information if it has already been touched upon in the previous sentence.

It’s important to address how readers feel about unfamiliar information. As a writer, we sometimes forget that readers have different assumptions, values and beliefs than we do. Their bodies of knowledge are not the same as ours. Thus, it’s important to clearly build your progression of thought or argument in a cohesive paper. In the sample passage, the writer clearly defines why readers depend on topics: “Topics tell the reader what a passage is ‘about.’”

3. Does the sentence end with interesting information the reader would not anticipate?

In the case of the sample passage, the last sentence has a sharp and unexpected ending. The last few words, “out of focus” are an unexpected way to end the paragraph because the entire paragraph has been about how topics are cohesive tools. Ending on this note leaves the reader feeling uneasy about leaving topics out of context, which is the aim of the sample passage.  

On a paragraph level:

Will your reader be able to identify quickly the "topic" of each paragraph?

Note: it is easier to see coherence and clarity in other people's writing because by the time we reach a final draft, everything we write seems old or familiar to us. Improving on this takes practice. Try giving yourself a few days between writing and revising to get a fresh look.

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