Sometimes I find tips for better writing in unexpected places. That happened this month. I recently dropped in at a family history exhibition and met Carol Baxter. She’s an author and the ‘History Detective’. She has a newsletter and in the most recent edition she included such a great writing tip that I had to share it with you. So this tip is adapted from Carol Baxter’s newsletter. Carol calls it ‘chronological writing’.
So what is chronological writing? At its simplest it’s about writing things in the order that they happened. Most of us probably do this quite unconsciously at the macro level, when we are thinking about the overall structure of our writing, but Carol’s tip was about doing it at the sentence/paragraph level. In her words, ‘It’s much easier for a reader to comprehend what we are saying when the first occurrence is written first and the second occurrence is written second.’
For the first example I’ll use Carol’s text, then I’ll follow it with a business example.
- Mary fed the cat then went to the shops.
- After feeding the cat, Mary went to the shops.
- Mary went to the shops after feeding the cat.
The first two the actions are written in the order they occurred. First feed the cat, then go to the shops. The third breaks the rule. As a reader you are following Mary to the shops but then you have to go back in time to where she is feeding the cat.
Now there’s nothing wrong with the third sentence. It’s just that if you write many of these sentences in your piece, your reader might become confused about what is happening when.
- At the meeting we reviewed the proposal and quotes, then decided to buy the XYZ printer for the department.
- After reviewing the proposal and quotes at the meeting, we decided to buy the XYZ printer for the department.
- At the meeting we decided to buy the XYZ printer for the department after reviewing the proposal and quotes.
Again, the third example is not wrong. It’s quite clear. But turn your timelines around too often and you may end up with a confused reader.
Why not add chronological sentences to your editing checklist? Ask yourself, ‘Are my sentences following the order or events?’ If they’re not, is that okay – or are there too many that aren’t?
BTW, you can find Carol’s website here.