Cohesion: What do People Mean When They Say My Writing Doesn’t “Flow”

Before You Read

Write 750 to 1,000 words in response to this prompt, keeping in mind that you’re going to be working with this piece of writing extensively in the coming days—not only in this chapter but in other chapters related to style:

As a public university that receives substantial support from the state legislature, the U has an obligation to serve the people of the state of Utah. However, there can be disagreements on what that service means. On one hand, it can mean admitting as many Utah residents as possible in order to increase the state’s population of college-educated citizens. On the other hand, it can mean increasing admission requirements to fulfill the U’s position as the “flagship” university in the state. Where do you come down?


Cohesion, or “Flow”—An Overview

Photo of a building's mirrored exterior windows, which present a disjointed, warped reflection of a building across the streetMany (student) writers have turned in papers only to have their readers (more often than not, their teachers) hand the papers back with comments that the writing doesn’t “flow.”

Unfortunately, teachers may not always be explicit about what they mean—just that it doesn’t “read” or “sound” right or that the ideas don’t progress from one to another. This chapter is about what “flow” actually means and how to make sure your writing does it.

By “flow,” most readers mean what grammarians and linguists call cohesion—the property of a text to hold together at the level of sentences and paragraphs. Of course, cohesion is good in any communication medium, and each medium can present challenges for it. If you’re sending text messages back and forth to a friend and the network sends them out of order, the result can be confusing: you might have written “thank GOD” in response to some piece of news, but your friend might not have gotten your message until after she texted “gotta go.” Oops. If you’re speaking to someone on a train or bus and something outside the window catches your attention, you might say something about it, and the other person might say, “wait—what?”

But in both those cases, you can quickly and easily clear up the confusion. Speech and texting are more or less synchronous media: that is, they involve people communicating at the same time and often in the same (virtual) space. Writing, however—in the traditional sense, anyway—is different, because it’s asynchronous. It also requires an important trade-off. Writing has worked well for a long time as a communication technology because it’s relatively easy to distribute. Someone using writing to communicate doesn’t have to move from place to place: she may simply write something down and send it. However, to use a metaphor from very current communication technologies, writing has low bandwidth compared to other media. If someone is speaking to you, you can infer meaning from words themselves but also from vocal inflections, facial expressions, hand gestures, posture, and even from how close the other person is to you. You can’t do that when you write and read. So, writers and readers can send and receive on the cheap, but they carry a burden of making their words work extraordinarily hard.

This idea has a very clear implication for your own written arguments—an important enough implication that we’d say it pretty loudly if you were standing right in front of us. But, since this is writing, we’ll use boldface: just because an argument you’re making is clear in your own head, that doesn’t mean it’s automatically clear to people who are reading the written version of your argument. That’s one of the reasons it’s a good idea to circulate the writing you do to others before you turn it in for a grade or circulate it in high-stakes situations.

Fortunately, the to-do list for “flow” is relatively short. Throughout Englishlanguage writing, it turns out that there is a small number of strategies for achieving cohesion. These strategies help writers follow a key principle for communicating with readers as effectively as possible on the assumption that they’re not looking over their readers’ shoulders pointing out what they really need to know. That principle is called the given-new contract. This contract implies that you as a writer will start your projected readers with something relatively familiar and then lead them to less familiar material. It’s an idea that is simple to state, but it’s powerful, and it works at different levels of a document. At the level of overall document design, consistent visual items on each page (page number location, headings, “white” space, fonts) help create a familiar visual field that works like a container for whatever new information is coming next. As you read earlier in this book, a lot of a writer’s job in an introduction, after all, is orienting readers so that they’re at least familiar with the broad topic before the writer gets specific—with an argument, for example. But the contract helps sentence-level cohesion, as well. It’s very helpful to readers if you create a cycle in which you try to put “given” information at the start of sentences and shift “new” information to the ends, and then recycle the “new” information as “given” information in sentences that come up. The principle of end emphasis helps here: readers tend to latch more onto how sentences end than onto how they begin. Skilled writers know this is often the case, so they’ll reserve end-of-sentence slots for new or challenging information, since they know they often have a little more of their readers’ attention at those spots anyway.

The given-new contract and the concept of end emphasis are a little tough to explain in abstract terms, so here’s an example followed by some analysis. We’ve numbered the sentences to help make the analysis clear.

1 This textbook is freely circulable under the terms of a Creative Commons (“CC”) license. 2 CC is a nonprofit organization that helps content creators, such as textbook authors, share their products in more diverse ways than traditional copyright allows. 3 While typical copyright restricts others from using an author’s work unless they have the author’s express consent, CC allows authors to pick and choose which restrictions to apply to their work by using one of several free licenses. 4 For example, this book is available via an “Attribution-NonCommercialShareAlike” agreement: adopters of the textbook may use it free of charge and may even modify it without permission, but they must agree not to try to sell it or share it with others under different licensing terms.

Each sentence in this passage shows our attempt to honor the given-new contract. Here’s how:

  1. The first sentence introduces the term “Creative Commons” near its end. We’re assuming that you may not know (much) about CC, so we’re trying to exploit end emphasis to introduce it here very early in the paragraph.
  2. This sentence immediately recycles CC and defines the term more fully. The sentence ends with the important (and “new”) idea that CC allows for a wider range of options than copyright.
  3. Now, the passage explains in a little more detail the point it just made about copyright restrictions and goes on to clarify the contrast with CC, ending with the “new” information that CC allows authors to choose from several licenses.
  4. Not surprisingly, the next sentence shows what the previous sentence introduced by giving an example of a relevant CC license.

In addition to using the principle of end emphasis, writers who honor the given-new contract frequently use several other strategies.


Stock transition words and phrases

Many writers first learn to make their writing flow by using explicit, specialpurpose transitional devices. You may hear these devices called “signposts,” because they work much like highway and street signs. When steel boxes weighing 2 tons and more are rolling around at high speeds, it’s important that their operators are repeatedly and clearly told exactly where and when to go with as little ambiguity as possible.

Here’s a list of stock, generic, all-purpose transition words and phrases, organized by their basic functions. Keep in mind that there are differences among these that can make a difference and that determining what those differences is is beyond the scope of this book. It’s a matter of experience.

Photo looking down an open corridor, showing a series of stone archways leading to a set of stairs in the distanceTo add or show sequence: again, also, and, and then, besides, equally important, finally, first, further, furthermore, in addition, in the first place, last, moreover, next, second, still, too

To compare: also, in the same way, likewise, similarly

To contrast: although, and yet, but, but at the same time, despite, even so, even though, for all that, however, in contrast, in spite of, nevertheless, notwithstanding, on the contrary, on the other hand, regardless, still, though, yet

To give examples or intensify: after all, an illustration of, even, for example, for instance, indeed, in fact, it is true, of course, specifically, that is, to illustrate, truly

To indicate place: above, adjacent to, below, elsewhere, farther on, here, near, nearby, on the other side, opposite to, there, to the east, to the left

To indicate time: after a while, afterward, as long as, as soon as, at last, at length, at that time, before, earlier, formerly, immediately, in the meantime, in the past, lately, later, meanwhile, now, presently, shortly, simultaneously, since, so far, soon, subsequently, then, thereafter, until, until now, when

To repeat, summarize, or conclude: all in all, altogether, in brief, in conclusion, in other words, in particular, in short, in simpler terms, in summary, on the whole, that is, to put it differently, to summarize

To show cause and effect: accordingly, as a result, because, consequently, for this purpose, hence, otherwise, since, then, therefore, thereupon, thus, to this end, with this object in mind

As we just told you, avoiding ambiguity in academic and professional writing is important. But it’s not as important as avoiding it on highways, in factories, or around high-voltage equipment or explosives. In those contexts, lots of signposts with lots of redundancy are vital. In many writing situations, you can expect your readers to pick up other useful clues for cohesion, so it’s somewhat less important to use a lot of these “stock” or generic transition words. In fact, if you overuse them (for instance, in an essay in which your first paragraph starts with “first,” your second paragraph starts with “second,” and on and on), it can get annoying.



If you’re old enough vaguely to remember the Schoolhouse Rock series, you might remember the episode about pronouns (“he,” “she,” “her,” “him,” “you,” “we,” “they,” “it,” “one,” “this,” “that,” and some others) and how they can stand for nouns, even if the nouns have long names. The idea is that pronouns make speaking and writing more efficient. But you may not have learned that pronouns are at least as powerful as cohesive devices. Since pronouns work by referring back to nouns that have previously been mentioned, they can help writers carry the ideas their nouns represent across sentences and paragraphs.

You may have been told to limit your use of pronouns or even avoid them altogether. This is bad advice, but it’s understandable: pronouns work very well when they clearly refer to their antecedents, but they can create significant comprehension problems, misdirection, and vagueness when they don’t.



Contrary to a lot of advice novice writers get, repetition is effective. For example, as you’ll learn later in this book (or now if you want to read ahead, of course), many rhetorical strategies that are thousands of years old and that exist in several languages use repetition. It’s a time-honored way to signal importance, create a sense of rhythm, and help audiences remember key ideas. But repetition gets a bad reputation because it can become redundant. (Yes, that sentence used repetition to get its point across. It’s no accident that it had a lot of “r”s.)

Photo showing close-up of mahjong tiles, standing on end in sequential order

Repetition can involve individual words, phrases, or grammatical structures. When you repeat similar structural elements but not necessarily the words themselves, you are using parallelism, a special variety of repetition that not only helps cohesion but also helps you to communicate that similarly important ideas should be read together. When sentences are written using non-parallel parts, it’s certainly possible for readers to understand them, but it creates work for the reader that usually isn’t necessary. Compare these sentences:

Student writers should learn to start projects early, how to ask for advice from teachers and peers, and when to focus on correcting grammar.

Student writers should learn to start projects early, to ask for advice from teachers and peers, and to figure out when to focus on correcting their grammar.

See the difference? The first sentence is comprehensible: the commas, for example, let you know that you’re reading a list. But the extra adverbs (“how” and “when”) get in the way of the sentence’s clarity. And that problem, in turn, means that it’s hard to see clearly how each item in the list relates to the others. In the revised sentence, though, it’s a lot clearer that each of the three items is something student writers should “learn to” do. That relationship is made clear by the repeating grammatical pattern:

Student writers should learn

  • to start projects early
  • to ask for advice
  • to figure out when to focus on grammar



Here’s an example of some writing that uses a variety of cohesion strategies. We know it well because one of us wrote it. It’s a short essay, written for a broad academic audience in a U publication, about the current state of the English language. To clarify the analysis that follows, we’ve underlined a few of the transition devices.


Teaching (and Learning) Englishes

Jay Jordan

University Writing Program

I teach English-language writing, and I’m a native speaker of the English language. Being a native speaker might seem to be an excellent basic qualification for my job: at the very least, it should necessarily make me the model of English usage. However, it actually makes me very unusual.

According to The British Council, approximately 1.5 billion people around the world use English. Roughly 375 million of them are like me: they have learned English since birth, and most of them live in countries like the US, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand that are traditional English-language centers.

That still leaves over a billion English users. 375 million of those people live in countries that were British colonies until the middle of the last century, such as Ghana, India, Kenya, and Nigeria.

But the largest number of English speakers—50% of the global total—are in countries that were not British colonies and that don’t have much of a history with English. Count China, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, and South Korea among them. So, most English speakers aren’t where we might expect them to be. In addition, they’re not using English in ways we might expect, either, which helps explain why I’m referring to them as “users” and not “writers” or “speakers.” Most people who use English around the world do so in specific circumstances in order to get very specific things done. Many Indians, for instance, might use English in publications and to transact business over the phone, Hindi in a government office, Gujarati at the store, and maybe one of several other languages at home.

What does this mean for my teaching and research? People and information move around globally more so now than ever, and that movement makes diverse uses of English feed back into the US. As students at the U (and the U is not alone) become more culturally and linguistically diverse, I often have as much to learn from them as I have to teach them.



This short example uses each of the cohesion strategies described above:

  • Overall, the example attempts to honor the given-new contract. It starts on familiar territory—or at least, with an attempt to orient the reader very quickly to the writer’s personal approach. And it also makes a statement about the writer that the reader likely intuitively agrees with: namely, he’s a native speaker of English, which makes him well qualified to be an English teacher. But the first paragraph ends with a surprising claim: being a native English speaker means being unusual. Here, then, the writer starts with what’s comfortable but then uses end emphasis to reinforce the “new” information at the end.
  • The writer does use several stock transitions: in fact, one of them —“however”—helps introduce the surprising sentence at the end of the introduction by clearly signposting something different or unexpected. And, as another example, the fourth paragraph starts with “but,” which signposts another transition to information that contradicts what comes before. (You may have been told never to start sentences with conjunctions like “but” or “and.” It turns out that it’s generally fine to do that. Just be aware of your readers’ preferences.)
  • Pronouns appear to be the most common cohesion device in the essay. At the start of the third paragraph, for example, “that” stands in for the statistic in the previous paragraph, which would be hard to write out all over again. But “that” also carries forward the sense of the statistic into the next paragraph. And “those people” carries the statistic forward to the next sentence. (Really, “those” is actually an adjective that modifies “people,” but it’s enough like a pronoun that we’re handling it like one here.)
  • Repetition is also common in this essay. Words are repeated—or at least, put very close to other words that are very similar in meaning. “English” and “British colonies” clearly help tie together the third and fourth paragraphs. And sentences show parallelism. See, for instance, paragraph four: “So, most English speakers aren’t where we would expect them to be. In addition, they’re not using English in ways we might expect, either.”


To Do

  1. Identify at least three other specific cohesion devices used in the example essay. Be prepared to say what kind of device it is and what effect it has on your reading. Also be prepared to suggest what would happen if it weren’t there.
  2. Re-read the 750-1,000 words you wrote before you read this chapter, paying particular attention to cohesion. Now, revise it to improve its flow.