A look at one well-organized technical paragraph

Careful, cohesive writing carries us smoothly through the material

When a piece of writing leads us smoothly through its topics, we say it flows well. Each sentence prepares us in some way for the next. Each seems to follow naturally, perhaps almost inevitably, one from the other. We always feel well located in the discussion. We know where we’re going, very clearly, in the moment, and we are engaged at the same time in putting together the bigger picture. We are building in our minds the model of the information — concepts, process, argument, whatever — conveyed by the words. For we must disassemble, and then reassemble, in order to comprehend.

In such text, any surprises we encounter have most often to do with the information being conveyed — with substance, that is — not with the manner of writing. The writing is a steady and capable guide. When the information is rich and complex, we may have to work to fully grasp the material. But the work we do is focused on mastering the concepts, not on getting through the writing.

Such writing, writing that flows well, that’s smooth, we say is cohesive. When it is also logically organized, when it doesn’t stray or ramble, we say that it is coherent. In reality, the two concepts are as inextricably linked as are the terms themselves. Something that is cohesive also (in verb form) coheres. Something that coheres is (in a parallel adjective form) coherent. But most writing guides will focus on cohesion as the relationship of one sentence to the next and on coherence either as the relationship of each sentence to the larger whole or as the relationship of all those sentences, taken together, to create that larger whole.

This cohesion-coherence dyad is a powerful tool for writing in a way that readers can easily follow. And you can see it at work in this paragraph —

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The passage is not lyrical and lovely (nor is it meant to be), but it is clear and tight. It carries us along — even if we are completely new to these concepts — in text that is easily comprehended, easily absorbed. It is also text that is easily skimmed.

And that’s because the writer has made use of several strategies for cohesion and, ultimately, coherence.

The known-new contract

A standard strategy for writing clear, easily comprehended expository text is to write from what the reader can be presumed to know (or what you have just introduced) to what is new, which is typically the point of the current sentence. To write to this strategy, you’d begin sentences — not absolutely every sentence, but many of them — with the known information and end on the new.

Writing this way means positioning the known information as the transition or context setter into the sentence. It means leading into the new information, giving you time to develop it and placing it also in the position of natural emphasis in a typical English sentence. Writing this way also helps to link the sentences together in a kind of chain: each sentence opens with the known information that ties that sentence back to the preceding text, and each ends on the new, providing you a link for the next sentence.

This strategy is sometimes referred to as the known-new contract, and writing to it means recognizing something about reader comprehension and something about the structure of English sentences. Writing to this style is only one strategy among many, but it is a significant one for any writing designed to guide the reader through concepts or processes, any writing designed to teach, any writing designed to explain. So it is a strategy very much in evidence in technical writing.

Take a read through that paragraph again.

If you’re watching for it, you should now see how the information towards the ends of several sentences (or in one case, the main clause) is information newly introduced, and how that info is, in turn, used as the springboard for the following sentence or sentences.

That strategy is particularly noticeable at the beginning and the end of the paragraph —

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When you read through the passage the first time, this linking of known to new, to known to new, to known to new helped carry you along through the material, likely without you even realizing it. The structure sets up an easy pace, rendering concepts more digestible.

But it’s not the only strategy at work. In the middle of the paragraph, other strategies for connecting with the reader are in evidence.

Metadiscourse

Metadiscourse is writing about writing. Metadiscourse provides signposts for the reader that help to structure the material. Those signposts may signal something about your own intent or perspective (with phrases like turning now to, clearly, or unfortunately). They may directly invoke reader participation (with phrases like note that or as you may recall). Or they may clarify the purpose or direction of the discussion (with phrases like consequently, for example, on the one hand, or by contrast). Such phrases help to provide cohesion and also, in signaling larger structure, coherence.

In this paragraph, the numerical terms signal textual structure and so count as metadiscourse, but they also tie back to an earlier phrase in the manner of known to new —

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The mention of two conditions signals that we are about to hear what those two conditions are. The first and second that follow then follow directly from that mention.

This bit of metadiscourse layers a different sort of structural support, a different sort of linking of thought, into the paragraph.

Parallel structure

When you present like ideas in like structures — within or across sentences — that’s using parallel structure. Structuring thoughts to be taken and weighed together in parallel helps with clarity and comprehension. It helps with the coordination of longer structures. And it can help also with cohesion across a passage.

In this paragraph, parallelism is most overtly at work in two sets of sentence —

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The metadiscourse of enumeration sets up an opportunity for parallelism, as does the mention towards the end of the paragraph of two different components.

Other semantically cohesive ties

But the cohesive ties in this paragraph are not limited to the beginnings and the ends of sentences: interrelated concepts are interwoven throughout. For example, there’s the concept of memory, access to memory, and the granting of that access —

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And then, towards the end of that progression, the reader learns that the access to be granted has scope.

This idea of scope is inherently related to the other primary set of concepts layered into the paragraph, that of software components being “trusted.” Where trust is an issue, defining a scope (or range) for that access is not out of place. Even though the concept has not been explicitly introduced, it does not jar. Note too that the term component, one of key players in the passage, also repeats throughout.

Along with scope, two new players are introduced towards the end, players with significant roles in this whole process —

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The names of these components, the fact that they are managers, accords with the concepts of access requested and access granted.

The verbs used throughout the paragraph are also cohesive: in the process of being provided, access is requested and granted, and during (or perhaps as a result of) this process, it is also limited, controlled, and overseen — 

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 The concept of a digital signature “with the proper rights” is related as well to the intertwined concepts of trust and access and scope. There is scarcely a word in that paragraph not picking up and interleaving related ideas in one way or another. 

Subjects and predicates

In terms of the structure of sentences, the most basic framework is simply subjects and predicates.

Refocusing the lens more widely, to look simply at subjects and predicates —

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 . . . you’ll see short subject phrases, primarily naming the same themes; you’ll see verbs quickly arrived at, naming interrelated or repeat actions; and you’ll see a kind of overarching parallel structure to the paragraph as a whole, in the way that sentence cores mirror one another. The predominate structure is SVO or SVC. Several of the verb phrases set up a kind of litany: is limited, is trusted, is named, is granted, is controlled.

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The end result of this attention to cohesion is a paragraph that is quickly scanned, easily grasped. Even if we come completely fresh to this material, even when many of the concepts within it are foreign to us, we get the gist. Structure and semantics work together to usher us through the ideas.

From a lecture-discussion in a course in rhetorical grammar,
taught at UCSC Extension in the late ’90s through to 2001