Monday, October 13, 2014

How can you make your writing more coherent? Four Tips

I’m currently teaching a course on research and writing. The goal of the course is to teach students how to better research, plan and write an academic essay. As a student, this was the kind of course I tended to dislike — usually because the advice offered was either completely banal (“write in a clear, straightforward manner”) or fussily prescriptive (“judgment should be spelled without an ‘e’ when it refers to legal judgment, but with an ‘e’ when it does not”*). Teaching such a course has changed my attitude. I’ve realised that although most of what I was taught was indeed banal and fussy, there are nevertheless some interesting things to be said about the craft of writing.

One of these is the importance of coherence in essay-writing. Incoherence is one of biggest flaws I see in student essays. Such essays can often be made-up of well-formed sentences, but nevertheless be difficult to decipher. I cannot remember the number of times that I’ve waded through page-after-page of carefully-worded prose, only to be left in the dark as to what the student was trying to say. The missing ingredient was coherence: the connective tissue that helps to knit together all carefully-worded prose.

Although I’ve long been aware that this was the missing ingredient, I have never had much in the way of concrete advice to offer. I’m not that self-conscious about what I’m doing when I’m writing, so I’m typically unable to break the process down into a series of rules. Getting all the elements of an essay to fit together seems to come pretty naturally to me (though I’m not claiming to be a good or coherent writer). Fortunately, there are other people who can break things down into rules. Indeed, this was one of the joys of reading Steven Pinker’s recent book The Sense of Style. In one of my favourite chapters, he sets out exactly what it takes to write coherently. In this post, I want to share the four main “tips” that emerge from that chapter. In doing so, I’ll focus on their application to the kinds of academic writing that I engage in.

1. Adopt a sensible overarching structure
There are different “levels” to an academic paper. At the lowest level, there are the words that make up the sentences. At the next lowest level, there are the sentences that make up the paragraphs. Then come the paragraphs which make up sections and subsections. And then come….You get the idea. “Coherence” is something that can be assessed across these different levels. Before you start writing, it’s worth thinking about it at the most general level: that of the paper itself. What are you trying to say? What order should you say it in?

The answer is that you should adopt a sensible overarching structure (often referred to as an “essay plan”). Admittedly, this is pretty banal advice. But it can be rendered less banal with some concrete examples. Suppose I want to write an essay about the nature of love in Shakespeare’s plays. How should I go about it? There are a number of sensible structures I could adopt. I could just open a complete collection of Shakespeare’s work and take it play-by-play, discussing all the different forms of love that appear in each play. Alternatively, I could group the plays into their sub-genres (comedies, tragedies and histories) and explain the similarities and differences across the genres.

Another possibility would be to group the types of love into different categories (romantic love, friendship, tragic love, unrequited love etc.) and discuss how they arise in different plays. Or I could take the plays in the order in which Shakespeare wrote them and see how his thinking about love evolved over time. Some of these might be more appropriate in different contexts. The important point is that each of them is sensible: if someone read an essay with one of those structures, at no point would they feel lost or disoriented by the discussion.

Pinker gives some examples of sensible structures from his own writing. First, he talks about a time when he had to write about the vast and unruly literature on the neuroscience and genetics of language. How could he bring order to this chaos?

It dawned on me that a clearer trajectory through this morass would consist of zooming in [on the brain] from a bird’s-eye view to increasingly microscopic components. From the highest vantage point you can make out only the brain’s two big hemispheres, so I began with studies of split-brain patients and other discoveries that locate language in the left hemisphere. Zooming in on that hemisphere, one can see a big cleft dividing the temporal lobe from the rest of the brain, and the territory on the banks of that cleft repeatedly turns up as crucial for language in studies of stroke patients and brain scans of intact subjects. Moving in closer, one can distinguish various regions — Broca’s area, Wernicke’s area, and so on — and the discussion can turn to the more specific language skills, such as recognising words and parsing them into a tree, that have been tied to each area. 
(Sense of Style, p. 144)

That definitely makes sense. In fact, it sounds like an exciting tour of different brain regions. Another example he gives relates to something he wrote on different languages: English, French, Hebrew, German, Chinese, Dutch, Hungarian, and Arapesh (spoken in New Guinea). He decided to write about them from a chronological perspective, starting with the most recent language and working his way back to the oldest. This allowed readers to see how human language had changed over time.

I tend to structure my papers around the arguments I want to make. Typically, I make one general argument in each paper, which is defended by a number of premises, and fended off from attack by other counter-arguments and objections. I think of the argument I wish to defend as having a structure, one that can be literally mapped out and visualised using an argument mapping technique. I then view the paper as my attempt to illuminate that structure to the reader. Thinking about it in this way helps me plan out the structure. I always start with the conclusion — I don’t want to keep the reader in suspense: I want them to know where the discussion is going. This is usually followed by a section setting out the key concepts and ideas (just to make sure everyone has what they need to understand the structure of the argument). Thereafter, there are a number of different orderings available to me. Sometimes, I will start by looking at objections to my position, usually grouped by author or theme. A good example of this would be my paper “Hyperagency and the Good Life”. In it, I defended the notion that extreme forms of human enhancement might make life more meaningful. And I did so by first looking at four authors who disagreed with me. Other times, I will start with a basic defence of my own position, and follow it up with an assessment of the various counterarguments and objections (I did that in a more recent paper; yet to be published).

This probably sounds pretty dull and uninteresting — certainly when compared to Pinker’s tour of the brain — but I think it works well for academic writing, which often needs to be quite functional.

2. Make sure you introduce the reader to the topic and the point
A reader needs to know what it is you are writing about (the topic) and why (the point). Again, this seems like pretty banal and uninteresting advice, but it’s super-important and really interesting to see why. Read the following passage (taken from a study by the psychologists John Bransford and Marcia Johnson):

The procedure is actually quite simple. First you arrange things into different groups depending on their makeup. Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities that is the next step, otherwise you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo any particular endeavour. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run this may not seem important, but complications from doing too many can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well. The manipulation of the appropriate mechanisms should be self-explanatory, and we need not dwell on it here. At first the whole procedure will seem complicated. Soon, however, it will become just another facet of life. It is difficult to foresee any end to the necessity for this task in the immediate future, but then one never can tell.

Didn’t make much sense did it? Now read it again only this time add in the following topic sentence at the very start: “We need to talk about washing clothes”.

Isn’t it amazing how this one little sentence can transform an incoherent mess of words into something that actually makes sense? It is still not a paragon of clear writing, but it is vastly different. If that doesn’t convince you of the importance of telling the reader what you are writing about, then I’m not sure what will. The same goes for telling them why you are writing about it. In other words, telling them what it is you want them to get out of reading your paper. Do you want to educate them? Convince them of some conclusion? Illuminate some obscure area of research? Get them to do something different with their lives? It’s important that they know as soon as possible. Otherwise they won’t be able to see how everything you say fits together.

To be sure, there is some judgment to be exercised here. You don’t want to bludgeon the reader to death with topic sentences and constant reminders of where it is all going. They’ll be able to keep a certain amount of this detail in their heads as the read through. In a short piece (e.g. one that will take less than 20 minutes to read) one mention of the topic and the point will usually suffice (with the proviso that sometimes you might change topics and you’ll need to inform the reader of this). In longer pieces, you might want to add a few reminders so that they keep on track. As a general guide, I find that I end up taking reminders out of what I’ve written rather than adding them in. This is because it takes longer to write than it does to read, and I often need to remind myself of the topic and the point as I write. But many of these reminders are unnecessary from the reader’s perspective.

3. Keep the focus on your protagonists
Everything you write will have one or more protagonists. The protagonist could be an actual person, or group of persons; or it could be an abstract concept or idea. Whatever the case may be, it is essential that you keep the reader’s focus on that protagonist throughout your discussion. They need to know what the protagonist is up to. If you constantly switch focus — without proper foreshadowing — you end up with something that is disjointed and incoherent.

Again, some concrete examples might help. Suppose I’m writing an essay about Charles Darwin and what he thought about evolution. In that case, Darwin — or, more precisely, his thinking — is my protagonist. I must keep the reader’s focus on what he thought throughout the essay. So I might start by talking about his days in Cambridge, what he was taught, and how this might have influenced his thinking. I would then move on to discuss his time onboard the HMS Beagle, how he collected fossils throughout South America and the importance of his observations in the Galapagos Islands. I would then talk about his return to England, his taking up residence in Down House in Kent, the slow maturation of his ideas, and the eventual publication of his work. As I write, I might occasionally switch focus. For instance, to fully understand his observations on the Galapagos Islands, I might need to take a paragraph explaining some of the unusual geographical features of those islands. Or, when I write about the eventual publication of his ideas, I might need to talk about Alfred Russell Wallace and his independent discovery of the principle of natural selection. These divagations would be perfectly acceptable; the important thing would be to bring the focus back to Darwin soon afterwards.

A more abstract example might be an essay on the concept of justice. In this case, justice itself is my protagonist. I must keep the reader focussed on its meaning, importance and implications. So I could start with a basic definition, talking about the role of justice in shaping political and social institutions. I could then divide justice up into different sub-concepts (distributive justice/corrective justice) and talk about them for a while. I might occasionally switch focus to a particular thinker and what he or she thought about justice. For example, I might talk about John Rawls and his concept of “justice as fairness”. This could involve a couple of paragraphs about Rawls as a person, how he developed his concept, and its influence on contemporary political thinking. This switch to a different protagonist would be fine, so long as it was foreshadowed (e.g. “The 20th century philosopher John Rawls had some interesting ideas about justice. Let’s talk about him for a bit”), and so long as the focus switched back to the concept itself once the discussion of Rawls reaches its natural endpoint.

Keeping the protagonists front and centre in your prose is essential to coherent writing. To do it effectively, you must have some consistent way of referring to them. One of the worst mistakes you can make is to indulge in the sin of elegant variation, i.e. constantly coming up with new ways of referring to an old protagonist. For example, referring to Rawls as “the Harvard sage” or the “bespectacled justice-fetishist” or whatever. Some, occasional, variation is nice, but too much of it is confusing. You don’t want the reader pausing every few minutes to figure out if you are still talking about the same thing.

I have to say, elegant variation is one of the biggest flaws I see among student essays, particularly those written by better students. They are often taught that variation is the hallmark of sophisticated prose; that repetitive use of the same word evinces an underdeveloped vocabulary. This is wrong. The goal of written communication is not to impress the reader with your verbosity; it is to be understood.

4. Understand how coherence relations work
The final tip is the most technical. As David Hume noted, there are a few basic types of relationship that can exist between different ideas (resemblance, contiguity and cause-and-effect). We can call these coherence relations. When writing, it is important to use these basic types of relationship to knit your ideas together. The easiest way to do this is to use connectives, particular words or strings of words that explicitly signal which type of relationship exists.

Pinker identifies four types of coherence relation: the three Humean ones, and additional type he calls attribution. In one of the most useful sections of his book, he goes through each of these relations, giving examples and explaining how they work. I’ll do the same now.

Let’s start with resemblance relations. The name is a little bit misleading because it doesn’t merely cover situations in which one idea resembles another; it also covers situations in which one idea differs from another, or clarifies or generalises another. Here’s a list of the most common types of resemblance relation:

Similarity: Shows how one idea is similar to another, e.g. “Darwin’s theory of evolution was like that of Alfred Russell Wallace.” A similarity relation is commonly signalled by the use of and, similarly, likewise and too.
Contrast: Shows how one idea differs from another, e.g. “Hobbes conceived of the state of nature as a war of all against all. Rousseau had a much rosier view.” A contrast relation is commonly signalled by the use of but, in contrast, on the other hand, and alternatively.
Elaboration: Describes something in a generic way first, and then in specific detail, e.g. “Justice is about fairness. It is about making sure that everybody gets an equal share of public resources.” Elaboration is commonly signalled by the use of a colon (:), that is, in other words, which is to say, also, furthermore, in addition, notice that, and which.
Exemplification: Starts with a generalisation and then gives one or more examples, e.g. “Free will is a deeply contested concept. There are as many different theories of free will as there are days of the week: agent causalist theories, event-causal libertarianist theories, compatibilist and semi-compatibilist theories, illusionist theories, hard-determinist theories and so on.” Exemplification is commonly signalled by the use of for example, for instance, such as, including and a colon (:).
Generalisation: Starts with a specific example and then gives a general rule, e.g. “There are as many different theories of free will as there are days of the week: agent causalist theories, event-causal libertarianist theories, compatibilist and semi-compatibilist theories, illusionist theories, hard-determinist theories and so on. This shows that free will is a deeply contested concept.” Generalisation is commonly signalled by in general, and more generally.
Exception - exception first: Gives an exception first and then gives the general rule, e.g. “David Hume was good-natured and witty. But philosophers are usually a sour bunch.” This is commonly signalled by however, on the other hand, and then there is.
Exception - generalisation first: Gives the generalisation first and then givse the exception, e.g. “Philosophers are usually a sour bunch. But David Hume was good-natured and witty.” This is commonly signalled by nonetheless, nevertheless, and still.

In my experience, resemblance relations are most common in academic writing. This is because academic writing typically talks about the relationships between abstract concepts and ideas, or between conclusions and premises and so on. That said, it sometimes talks about real people and real events. When it does, the other kinds of coherence relation are relevant.

Contiguity relations show how different events are related to one another in space and time. There are really only two forms this can take:

Sequence - before-and-after: Says that one thing happened and then another thing happened afterwards, e.g. “Darwin went on a five year voyage on the HMS Beagle. He then came home and developed his theory of evolution.” This type of sequence is commonly signalled by and, before, and then.
Sequence - after-and-before: Says that one thing happened and before that another thing, e.g. “Darwin developed his theory of evolution while living in Down House in Kent. Before that he had been a five-year voyage on the HMS Beagle.” This type of sequence is commonly signalled by after, once, while and when.

Although both of these sequences are acceptable, human beings tend to follow things better if they are written in their natural sequence (i.e. if you describe them in the order in which they happened). That’s not to say that reverse-ordering should be avoided — sometimes it can cast an interesting light on a topic — but it should be used with discernment.

Then, we have relations of cause-and-effect. These are common in scientific and historical discussions where you are trying to explain why things happened the way they did. There are four types of these relation:

Result (cause-effect): Introduces an explanatory principle or rule, then says what follows from that rule, e.g. “David Hume was living in an era of religious intolerance, that’s why he never published his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion during his lifetime.” This type of relation is commonly signalled by and, as a result, therefore, and so.
Explanation (effect-cause): States what happened first, then introduces the explanation, e.g. “The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. This was because of internal corruption and decay.” This type of relation is commonly signalled by because, since, and owing to.
Violated expectation (preventer-effect): Used when the cause prevents something from happening that would otherwise have happened, e.g. “Darwin would never have published his theory were it not for Huxley’s intervention.” This is commonly signalled by but, while, however, nonetheless, and yet.
Failed prevention (effect preventer): Used when the cause fails to prevent something from happening, e.g. “Darwin published his theory, despite his concerns about the religious backlash.” This is commonly signalled by despite and even though.

This brings us to the final category of coherence relation, which has only one member:

Attribution: Used when you want to attribute an idea or action or belief (or whatever) to a particular agent or individual, e.g. “Hume thought that there was no logical connection between the fact that the sun rose yesterday, and the fact that it would rise again tomorrow.” This is commonly signalled by according to, or X stated that.

Attribution is important when one wants to distinguish between who believes what and who did what. It is particularly useful when you want to distinguish between what you, as the writer, believe and what someone else believes.

These coherence relations are summarised in the table below. One thing should be stated before concluding: you don’t always have to use connectives to signal the existence of a coherence relation. Indeed, too much signalling can make your writing seem awkward and laboured. You need to exercise some judgment. When is the relationship between two sentences or paragraphs clear and when is it not? Put in the connectives whenever it seems unclear. This, incidentally, is why re-reading and re-drafting is essential to good writing. If you don’t put yourself in the shoes of the reader — or get others to play this role for you — you won’t be able to get the mix of explicit and implicit signalling right.

5. Conclusion
So that’s it. Four tips for improving the coherence of one’s writing. To briefly recap:

1. Adopt a sensible overarching structure: Make your point in a logical, easy-to-follow fashion. Adopting, spatial or temporal metaphors can help you to do this, e.g. imagining your argument as something with a visible structure.
2. Introduce the reader to the topic and the point: Make sure they know what you are talking about and why you are talking about it.
3. Help the reader keep track of the protagonists: Always be mindful of the person, concept or argument you are discussing. Make sure you keep the reader focused on that person, concept or argument. Avoid elegant variation.
4. Understand how coherence relations work: Be aware of how the ideas, concepts, agents, or events you are discussing relate to one another. Make sure the reader can follow those relations, either explicitly (through connective phrases) or implicitly (by good paragraph and sentence structuring).

* This is “fussily prescriptive” because it is a pseudo-rule. From my limited research, it seems that no one knows where the “rule” came from, and it is silly to insist on it because breaking it doesn’t hinder one’s ability to communicate.