Four types of coherence

What do we mean when we call a document "coherent"?

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When we call a piece of writing “disjointed” or “incoherent,” we typically mean that the document has some of the following flaws:

  • The writer jumps around among unrelated topics.

  • The writer does not work within any discernible organizational framework.

  • The writer sets certain ideas, sentences, or paragraphs alongside each other even though they are conceptually and verbally unrelated.

  • The writer does not use roadmaps to tell the reader where he or she is being led, or the writer does not use signposts to locate the reader within the argument.

Writers should look for and eliminate such problems during the revision process. But it may also help to have a positive understanding of what coherence entails. I suggest that coherence can be thought of as having four aspects along two dimensions: vertical-horizontal and conceptual-verbal.

  1. Vertical coherence. Vertical coherence relates to how a document “hangs together” as a whole. Does every paragraph relate to the document’s main idea and move the reader toward a conclusion?

  2. Horizontal coherence. Horizontal coherence relates to whether adjacent sentences and paragraphs are sufficiently related to each other that a reader does not feel jerked around or surprised by the sudden introduction of new topics.

  3. Conceptual coherence. Conceptual coherence relates to whether adjacent sentences and paragraphs bear some logical relationship to each other.

  4. Verbal coherence. Verbal coherence relates to whether adjacent sentences and paragraphs bear some verbal relationship to each other. A piece of writing is verbally coherent when a writer creates verbal links between adjacent sentences or paragraphs. Transition words and phrases are one way to create such verbal links.

Check your document for all four types of coherence when revising. Make sure that your document, and each section within the document, operates as a unified whole.


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Ryan McCarl (LinkedIn | Twitter | Blog) teaches Advanced Legal Writing at the UCLA School of Law and is a partner at the law firm Rushing McCarl.