The following post was excerpted from How to Write an Essay Like an Equation: A Brief Guide to Writing like You’re Doing Math. Check out Rebecca Helton’s full review.

You may have been told that your writing doesn’t flow well, but were you taught what that meant? More importantly, were you told how to fix it? Or perhaps you have been told that your writing flows well. Do you understand how or why?

Learning about content-lexical ties will help you understand and accomplish the “flow” that takes writing up a notch or two. The more your writing “flows,” the easier readers comprehend it. The more easily they comprehend it, the more easily they accept your ideas and the more highly they will rate your writing.

What is “Flow” Anyway?

When we talk about “flow,” we are talking about cohesion. Cohesion means unity or “sticking together.” When two things are cohesive, they stick together into one whole.

Cohesion in language, either spoken or written, refers to the unity or “sticking together” of ideas due to how they are expressed.

How do we express ideas so that they stick together or “flow”? We use content-lexical ties.

What are Content-Lexical Ties?

Let’s break down the term. Content, of course, refers to the ideas or information we present. Lexical is the adjective form of lexicon, which is a fancy word for vocabulary. A vocabulary is simply a storehouse of words. When you see “lexical,” think “words.” A tie binds things together.

Content-lexical ties are words (lexicon) that tie (bind) different pieces of content (ideas) together into a cohesive whole.

To put it another way, writing that “flows” uses certain types of words to connect new ideas to earlier ideas.

What Are Content-Lexical Ties?

There are four types of content-lexical ties (adapted from linguist Dilin Liu1).

Direct Repetition



Related Words (Contextual Synonyms/Antonyms)


Members of Categories

Transition Sentences, Phrases, or Words

Type 1: Direct Repetition, Synonyms, and Antonyms

The first type of content-lexical tie consists of directly repeating key words and using synonyms, antonyms, or both to restate ideas without repeating the same words too much. Repeating key words at strategic places in your writing will simultaneously emphasize and connect ideas, facilitating comprehension and maintaining interest. Too much repetition, however, will become mind-numbing. Using synonyms allows you to restate key ideas without using the same exact words. Antonyms create contrasts with earlier ideas or wording, connecting that previous content with the current passage in your writing.

Notice how I used repetition, synonyms, and antonyms to connect ideas and create a smooth “flow” in the paragraph above? Let’s take a closer look. Below, the bold words are repetitions, and the bold-and-italic words are synonyms or antonyms.

The first type of content-lexical tie consists of directly repeating key words and using synonyms, antonyms, or both to restate ideas without repeating the same words. Repeating key words at strategic places in your writing will simultaneously emphasize and connect ideas, facilitating comprehension and maintaining interest. Too much repetition, however, will become mind-numbing. Using synonyms allows you to restate key ideas without using the same exact words. Antonyms create contrasts with earlier ideas or wording, connecting that previous content with the current passage in your writing.

The direct repetition, such as “repeating key words” in the first and second sentences, connects the information in those sentences to each other. Using synonyms, such as “restate ideas” and “repetition” for “repeating key words,” also connects ideas but without excessive repetition. The words “interest” and “mind-numbing” are antonyms. A contrasting relationship between one idea and another connects those ideas as well as the ideas around them.

Type 2: Related Words

So-called “related words” are the second type of content-lexical tie. Related words are contextual synonyms or antonyms. A “related word” wouldn’t normally mean the same thing or the opposite as another word, but it becomes a synonym or antonym in the context in which it is used.

Relying entirely on repetition and restatement can easily lead to stale writing. It’s very helpful to use related words to maintain variety while connecting ideas across a piece of writing. The words “flow” and “cohesion” don’t have the same dictionary definitions, but they mean the same thing in the context of writing. “Disorganized” and “flow” don’t mean the opposite of each other except when talking about writing. “Stale” and “variety” aren’t antonyms, but they become antonyms in the context of this paragraph. The previous sentence relates to the previous paragraph: “it [a related word] becomes a synonym or antonym in the context in which it is used.”

Related words are so effective because they are hardly noticed. They make the reading experience very smooth, but they don’t call attention to themselves as much as the other types of content-lexical ties. Thus they create subtle but strong cohesion throughout a piece of writing.

Type 3: Categories and Members of Categories

Categories and members of those categories comprise the third type of content-lexical tie.

This book, section, and paragraph are organized with categories and members thereof. The book is about writing, and each chapter explains a strategy or component of writing. In this section, I stated that there are four types of content-lexical ties, and then I named and explained each type. This paragraph begins with “book, section, and paragraph” and then discusses each one in turn. Implicitly, they are members of the category of writing. More explicitly, “section” and “paragraph” are members of “book.” Stating categories and their members can help structure writing on the levels of entire books and single paragraphs, achieving flow and cohesion.

Sometimes the subject matter lends itself to using categories and members, and sometimes it does not. Don’t force categories or members into your writing if they don’t fit. Having said that, if you expand your thinking about them, then you may identify more kinds of categories than you would expect. As shown above, depending on context, “writing” can be a category and “book, section, and paragraph” can be members of that category.

Type 4: Transition Sentences, Phrases, and Words

Each of the content-lexical ties above creates implicit, or indirectly suggested, connections among ideas. In contrast, transitions explicitly, or directly, tell readers how one idea relates to another. They usually occur at the beginning of paragraphs or sentences so that they help readers interpret the writing as they read it.

The transition word “therefore” tells readers that the next idea results from the previous one. The same is true for transition phrases like “as a result” or “in consequence.”

The transition word “however” tells readers that the next idea in some way contradicts the previous one. So do transition phrases such as “to the contrary” or “in contrast.”

Phrases like “for example” signal that the next idea elaborates on a prior one, while a phrase such as “since then” indicates a relationship of time.

You must use the transition word or phrase that signals the relationship that you want to convey. Here is a list of common transition words and phrases, organized according to their meanings:









As a result



On the contrary




On the other hand


In addition

Along the same lines


It follows that…


In the same way




In comparison



In fact




In other words

Just like[A], B is …



To put it another way


Even though

















In short


For example

First (Second, etc.)

In brief


For instance


To summarize

I concede that …

As an example


To sum up

While it is true that …

As an illustration



Although it is true that …




Even though …

Another example is …


Using appropriate transition words and phrases easily but effectively improves your writing’s flow. Add them to the beginning of paragraphs or sentences that start a new topic, point, or idea. Add them to sentences that need a stronger connection to earlier ideas in the writing. Directly stating relationships between ideas builds bridges that facilitate comprehension and create cohesion.

By stating the relationship between one paragraph and the next, transition sentences guide readers between the paragraphs. An effective transition sentence communicates two things: the main idea of the previous paragraph and the main idea, or point, of the paragraph into which you are transitioning. It is even more effective when you state the idea of the previous paragraph’s last sentence and then the point of the upcoming paragraph. This technique creates a strong bridge between the paragraphs.

In the paragraph above, for example, the first sentence refers back to the prior paragraph’s last sentence — “By stating the relationship between one paragraph and the next” refers to “Directly stating relationships between ideas.” The rest of the sentence states the upcoming topic, transition sentences.

Transition sentences often use phrases like, “In addition to …,” or ”In contrast to …,” or “Although …,” or “Similar to …,” to set up both the reference to a prior idea and the statement of the next idea. There are many more such phrases you might use, but I find these phrases to be quite flexible.

  • “In addition to directly stating relationships among ideas, transitions add length to writing without being fluff.”
  • “In contrast to directly stating relationships among ideas, other content-lexical ties imply the relationships.”
  • “Although stating relationships between ideas is important, it cannot substitute for strong audience-awareness, purpose, and development of ideas.”
  • “Similar to directly stating relationships among ideas, implying or suggesting connections also guides readers.

Notice that you can connect an idea or sentence to the next one in a variety of ways, depending on the nature of the idea into which you are transitioning. Use the phrasing that helps set up the kind of statement you want to make.

Whenever you need to improve the flow from one paragraph to the next, try the simple technique of writing a sentence that refers back to the previous paragraph or sentence and then states the main idea or point of the upcoming paragraph.

Combining Content-Lexical Ties

Ideally, you will use each type of content-lexical tie in the same piece of writing. Combining them will give you more flexibility in connecting your ideas for the reader. You don’t necessarily have to make sure you work in an antonym for the sake of doing so, especially if doing so would be awkward, but it should be fairly easy to find opportunities to incorporate some of each type.

Here is an example of a paragraph that combines all four types to create cohesion through both implicit and explicit connections among the ideas:

Renewable energy sources include solar, wind, and geothermal power. Solar power comes from solar panels, which are usually located in very sunny climates like deserts. The panels convert energy from the sun into electricity that can be transported or stored. Wind power comes from huge wind turbines located in open plains where strong winds blow almost incessantly. These turbines connect to generators, turning them to produce electricity. Lastly, geothermal power uses heat from underground sources to produce steam used by electric plants. While they hold promise, these sources can de-energize electric plants and de-power homes when clouds fill the sky, the wind stops, or the underground heat lessens.

Type 1: Words like “energy,” “solar,” and “power” are repeated throughout. “Energy” and “electricity” are synonyms. “Energy” and “de-energize” are antonyms.

Type 2: The word “power” is a contextual synonym, or related word, for “energy” and “electricity.” The word “de-power” is a contextual antonym.

Type 3: The passage begins with a category, “renewable energy sources,” and then describes members of that category, “solar, wind, and geothermal power.”

Type 4: The word “lastly” guides readers from the previous sentence into the upcoming sentence. The phrase, “while they hold promise,” similarly guides readers into the concluding sentence’s idea.

With just a little thoughtfulness, you can create numerous connections among your ideas, facilitate comprehension, and provide a smooth reading experience.

How to Use Content-Lexical Ties

There are two ways to apply content-lexical ties to your writing. Don’t worry. Pick the answer that is right for you. Try both if you’re not sure. They’re pretty similar anyway.

Option 1: you can consciously incorporate content-lexical ties as you write. You could write a point sentence and begin your supporting evidence. Then you could ask yourself, “How can I connect what I’m going to write back to those earlier ideas?”

That general question may suffice, but it should also help with asking and answering more specific questions:

  • What key words or ideas should I repeat strategically?
  • What synonyms or antonyms can I use to restate key ideas?
  • In this context, what words or phrases would be related to each other and/or to what I have already written?
  • Have I discussed any categories? Should I? If so, what members of those categories should I mention now?
  • Would a transition sentence bridge between two ideas or sentences?
  • Would a transition word or phrase guide the reader into an idea, topic, or sentence?

Option 2: you can incorporate content-lexical ties while rewriting and editing. Write the draft of your paragraph or entire paper. Read it and look for the content-lexical ties that you used (or didn’t). Then add more of them as needed.


  1. Now that you know what they are, consider how content-lexical ties help a conversation or piece of writing “flow” for you.
  2. Think about how you might restate an idea several times without seeming to repeat yourself.
  3. How many ways can you transition between a sentence about “kumquats” and a sentence about “machinery”?


  1. Pick a paragraph or two out of an article at random. Identify the content-lexical ties.
  2. Rewrite the same paragraph in your own words, coming up with your own content-lexical ties.
  3. Write a paragraph in which you use all four types of content-lexical ties.


Liu, D. (2000). “Writing Cohesion: Using Content-Lexical Ties in ESOL.” English Teaching Forum.

Related Resources:

Practical Writing Advice from a Writing Teacher

Making Writing More Memorable and Persuasive 

One-Minute Writing Tuneup: Energize Your Words with Active Voice

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