Cohesive writing is writing that creates clear and logical relationships among ideas. We often describe writing that cohesively ties ideas together in a seamless way as writing that "flows" and writing that doesn't as "choppy."

While cohesion may be achieved by a variety of means, we address two particularly effective strategies here: 1) the known-new contract and 2) metadiscourse.

1. The known-new contract

The known-new contract identifies a way of ordering ideas or information that communicates what is already known before introducing a new topic.

For example, if someone says to you, all of a sudden and without any context, "It is broken," you will have to ask that person "What is?" Because no known information has been introduced, the subject of the sentence, "it," doesn't have a clear referent. If, however, the person had said, "Do you remember the vase that I like? It is broken," you would understand the relationship between "the vase" and "it."

In this case, "the vase," which is new information in the first sentence, becomes the known information in the second sentence (referred to by "it"). The next sentence will likely, then, still be about the vase and its condition, and not, for example, about a different topic. It is easier to follow the information presented like this:

Do you remember the vase that I like? It's broken. It fell off the table.

than if it is presented like this:

Do you remember the vase that I like? It fell off a table and now it's broken. My aunt had one just like it.

In the second example, the third sentence ("My aunt had one just like it.") introduces an unexpected subject (my aunt) as well as an unclear reference to "it," which in this case could refer to the table or the vase. By following a regular sequence of known information preceding new information, as in the first example, you make it easier for readers to follow your train of thought.

Perhaps one of the most helpful features of the known-new contract is that it applies at the sentence, paragraph, and chapter level. It's an all-purpose strategy for organizing ideas and presenting information. It may also help to picture it in this way:

[known . . . new] → [known (i.e., what was new in the previous sentence, or paragraph, or chapter) . . . new] → [known . . . new] → [known . . . new] . . .

Let's take a look at this strategy in practice. The following passage comes from a student's essay:

Hard work and perseverance will lead to socioeconomic success in the USA. However, "limited English proficient students were found to be more disadvantaged economically than other students" (Porter 23), and without a high school education, the doors to equality remain closed for many immigrants. Herein rests the importance of education in the American culture. High profile jobs are available only to educated individuals with English fluency.

In this passage, the writer covers a lot of territory, beginning with "hard work and perseverance," moving quickly on to "'limited English profiency standards,'" and eventually to "the doors to equality." Even though these topics appear in a paragraph that focuses on a single theme—the relationship between economic success and English proficiency—as subjects of individual sentences, they bear no relationship to one another. This weakness is most apparent when we get to the sentence that begins with "herein." At this point in the passage, most readers will question what "herein" refers to: Is it one or all of the previously mentioned topics? As a result of this ambiguity, the writer's argument remains embedded in several sentences that never quite cohere, and readers move away from the passage never having clearly understood what the writer was trying to say.

Establishing the known-new contract

There are a variety of ways to establish the known-new contract in your writing:

1.1 pronouns

Pronouns stand in for nouns that come before them. We call these nouns antecedents. By establishing a clear relationship to their antecedents, pronouns can help create cohesion. For example:

William Faulkner's work illustrates a narrative technique called stream of consciousness. A device that reveals a character's thoughts and feelings as they occur, stream of consciousness attempts to replicate the internal workings of the mind. When put into practice, it can be a powerful narrative feature.

In this example, repetition and pronoun use help maintain the subject thread "stream of consciousness."

1.2 synonyms or near synonyms

Synonyms are words that share similar meaning. Using synonyms to refer to known information and to avoid repeating the same word multiple times is an effective strategy for establishing cohesion. For example:

Rats are dirty animals. These large rodents live in damp and dark places . . .

In these two sentences, "rats" and "these large rodents" refer to the same group of animals.

1.3 passive voice

Passive constructions can help establish cohesion if the subject in the passive voice represents known information from a previous sentence. For example:

Sue was a great student. Unfortunately, she was hit by a car and was unable to finish the quarter.

as opposed to

Sue was a great student. Unfortunately, a car hit her, and she was unable to finish the quarter.

In the first version, the pronoun "she" refers to known information ("Sue") from the previous sentence. This version follows the known-new contract. However, the second version violates the known-new contract because the topic jumps to "the car" instead of staying with "Sue", and "the car" is new information that has not been introduced before. This shift gives the writer's sentences a choppy quality that the first example avoids by abiding by the known-new contract. For more on passive voice, click here.

2. Metadiscourse

Metadiscourse refers to signal words and phrases that explicitly link sentences and paragraphs together by indicating relationships among ideas. Examples of such relationships include:

Signal words sometimes require careful use of punctuation, so take a moment to familiarize yourself with how careful punctuation can help you avoid creating comma splices, fused sentences, or sentence fragments. Click here for more about sentence structure.


In this section we introduced strategies for establishing cohesion in writing: the known-new contract and metadiscourse. Both strategies figure prominently in writing that communicates directly and logically with readers.

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