2019 Steve Campsall

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writing skills: unity and coherence

These are two key aspects of effective writing. They are two qualities that will provide a sense of smooth fluency to you writing.

If a piece of writing exhibits a sense of 'unity' it means that its writer has followed a single main ('controlling') idea throughout. Writing is 'unified' when each word and sentence is consequential and leads the reader to a greater understanding of the overall theme of the piece.

Coherence is linked to the idea of 'unity'. If writing is coherent, each part is linked logically. Coherent writing appears to flow naturally and seamlessly in both style and sense. Each idea is related in a way that helps build towards an overall controlling idea, conclusion or theme in the text.

Some writers have compared a text to piece of fine cloth, woven from words, and one where no loose stitches or threads exist. 

Most beginner's writing lacks some degree of coherence and contains many 'empty' or extraneous words. It could be more compact - less 'flabby'! A good way to revise and redraft a piece of writing is to look out for the 'threads' that are loose or superfluous to the overall purpose of the writing and, metaphorically, 'pull them out'. Far from making the writing 'fall apart', removing loose and superfluous threads (or waffle) will make the writing altogether stronger and more interesting to read - as well as easier to understand. Reading back your work as you write it, and initially aloud, can help you to notice these errors of style.

Here are two famous extracts that show clear unity and coherence:

'I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.' I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream ... ...'

Martin Luther King, Jr.
Delivered on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963

'In the Reserve I have sometimes come upon the Iguana, the big lizards, as they were sunning themselves upon a flat stone in a riverbed. They are not pretty in shape, but nothing can be imagined more beautiful than their colouring. They shine like a heap of precious stones or like a pane cut out of an old church window. When, as you approach, they swish away, there is a flash of azure, green and purple over the stones, the colour seems to be standing behind them in the air, like a comet's luminous tail. Once I shot an Iguana. I thought that I should be able to make some pretty things from his skin. A strange thing happened then, that I have never afterwards forgotten. As I went up to him, where he was lying dead upon his stone, and actually while I was walking the few steps, he faded and grew pale, all colour died out of him as in one long sigh, and by the time that I touched him he was grey and dull like a lump of concrete. It was the live impetuous blood pulsating within the animal, which had radiated out all that glow and splendour. Now that the flame was put out, and the soul had flown, the Iguana was as dead as a sandbag.'

From the novel, 'Out of Africa' by Karen Blixen (1937)