Writing skills II: Writing coherent texts
A good piece of writing is organised so that it is coherent, making it easy for a reader to follow its line of argument. If you write in a chaotic or haphazard way, your readers will lose their way, and not understand what you are trying say.
You must think of:
the question(s) you have been asked, often called the thesis question.
whether you are asked to come down in favour of something, or to present both sides of an argument and let the reader decide which is “right”
In addition, you must choose the correct genre and style of English (see the article “Writing skills III: Choosing your genre and adapting your language”).
Sometimes you are asked to find your own approach to a topic and to construct your own thesis question. (In fact, most writers do this all the time, but at school here is a long tradition for simply doing what you are told!) This freedom comes with a price. You have to
find a topic that you feel you are qualified to write about
find a topic that is not too narrow – you must have something to write about
find a topic that is not too wide – you must be able to say what you want to say within the time and paper-space you have available
construct a thesis question that provides you with a good “hook” on which to hang your line of argument.
You must keep the thesis question or questions in focus all the time.
To deal with these points you need a strategy. Here is a possible strategy.
Read the thesis question twice. Think hard about it, and do some brain-storming with a clean sheet of paper in front of you.
If it seems disorganised, you could make a “mind map” organising the items from your brain-storming into units, all linked to the thesis question. Make notes of authorities/evidence/examples etc you can use to support your ideas
Make an outline in note form which contains:
- your title (it must be a signpost: posing a question/questions)
- your main ideas in a logical order(each main idea will have one paragraph)
- a quick set of notes for each paragraph
- a rough draft of your conclusion
- a rough draft of your introductory paragraph
This is all the planning stage. Many writers think at least 25% of their “writing time” should be spent on planning. They make their plan, then go through it to exclude anything that is irrelevant, and to get some sort of idea about length. In an exam all this is fairly stressful, because you must complete your text in x minutes, but the more effectively you plan, the less stress you will suffer.
Careful planning increases your coherence, and makes your writing more effective.
Words on paper
Every text has a beginning, a middle and an end, and a title. Every text has a line of argument running through it. The title reflects the thesis question (or questions) and the line of argument is your response to that question. So keep this thesis question in your mind, and pin everything your write to it.
The first paragraph should include the following:
a first sentence that in some way captures the reader’s interest
a statement of the thesis, or main idea, of the whole text
a few more sentences that quickly point to the main points that will be taken up in the text
if it is a text about a literary work, the title of the work and its author should be mentioned in the first paragraph
The first paragraph should not be too long, and should not start giving any sort of extra information. (For example, do not start giving a biography of the writer.) This first paragraph is simply an introduction. It shows a map of the topic, and signposts the route your line of argument is going to take. The very first sentence is often difficult to write, and you should not worry if you find it difficult to make it “appealing”.
The “middle” of the essay consists of a set of paragraphs; in each of your paragraphs you make one main point. The first sentence of the paragraph should lead naturally from the preceding paragraph, so that your line of argument is obvious, then it says what the topic of the new paragraph is by making a general point. In the rest of the paragraph you:
support this point with evidence, facts, details or examples
develop the argument
end with a sentence that pulls the paragraph together, and maybe looks forward to the next point you are going to make (in the nest paragraph).
Avoid writing very short paragraphs or very long ones (unless you want to create special effects).
The “end” is a concluding paragraph which re-states the main idea of the essay:
it re-states its strongest points (each main point, we remember, has one paragraph)
it re-states the main idea of the whole text in new words
it concludes with your personal opinion or conclusion. If, for example, the thesis question is “Does the President have too much power?” you should, after showing where his power lies, and after discussing limitations to that power, “come clean” and say what you think. Too much power, or not enough!
Good paragraph discipline is important. Show that you are in control of your writing. Make your line of argument clear, and try to hold your reader’s interest.
Helping you with your line of argument
Some thesis questions demand that you show you are aware of both sides of an issue. In the above example, you should be aware of arguments for free entry, and arguments against. Here you would probably write one or two paragraphs presenting each side of the issue. Of course, you are free to present a point, then say why you think it is a weak point.
Another thing to remember is that some thesis questions are “doubles”. The example above gives you two tasks: first, to discuss the importance of galleries and museums, and, second, to discuss whether entry to them should be free. Make sure you give both of these issues a serious discussion.
In order to make the line of argument develop step-by-step, it is important to use language that links paragraph to paragraph and sentence to sentence. A word such as “however” is a little sign-post. It tells the reader that a contrasting idea is about to come. The little word “but” has the same sort of message. We call these words and phrases “transitional” or “linking” words or phrases. They constitute another language resource which should go into your kit-bag. Here is a list of some of them, and an explanation of what they signify:
Here are some common linking-words and phrases and an explanation of what they signify:
and, also, as well as, besides, in addition, furthermore, moreover
You are adding something of a similar kind to what you have just said. Charles Dickens was interested in America as well as being interested in his own country.
but, however, although, even though , nevertheless / nonetheless, on the contrary, yet, in contrast, on the one hand…on the other hand
You are about to say something that contrasts with what you have just said. Although there was much Dickens admired in America, he was appalled by slavery.
for example, for instance, an example of this is
You are giving an example of something you have written about or mentioned. She is selfish. For example, she never helps her sick mother.
first, second, third, to begin with, next
You are giving a sequence and want to “label” each item in the sequence. First, A… Second, B… Third, C…
as a result, consequently, therefore, so, thus
You write about A being the consequence of B. As a girl, Maggie suffered terrible burns. As a result, she was embarrassed when she met strangers.
as a rule, in other words, generally, for the most part
You generalise. As a rule, trade unions support the Labour party.
on balance, in conclusion, on the whole, all in all, by and large
You are summarising. On balance, the motor car has been of benefit to mankind.
It takes time and practice to master the exact usage of most of these words and phrases. Use them in your writing (home essays etc) and practise using them..
Linking-words give a flow to your writing, and they help your reader to follow your line of argument.
Another thing you have to decide before writing a text is what category of text it is, and what general style it should be written in, and the last section of “Writing skills” looks at this.