One of the most valuable experiences of having a good critique partner or editor is finding all the mistakes you didn’t know you were making! In the current draft of a Witch in Wine Country, my critique partner found a couple of bad writing habits that, while not terrible, added up to clarity problems when I used them over and over again. One of these is the problem of ordering.
Your writing is a guide for your reader to experience events by proxy. In reality, we experience events in order. Something happens, then we react to it. In writing, sometimes we jump to the most interesting or dramatic thing (the reaction), putting events out of order. Can we get away with it? Usually. Does verisimilitude and clarity suffer? absolutely.
Order Within a Sentence
Action and reaction beats have a specific order in real life, but we don’t always reflect that in writing. For example:
I burst into laughter when his eyes widened.
I want instinctively to lead with the most interesting/active event (bursting into laughter). But the laughter is a reaction to an event (the widening eyes). By placing the laughter first, the reader has to finish the sentence, then re-arrange things in their mind to get a clear picture of what’s happening. We do that automatically, but not effortlessly. It becomes easier to read and understand if I put events in the order they occur:
His eyes widened. I burst into laughter.
His eyes widened and I burst into laughter.
Ordering Within a Scene
This is a little more subtle, but it has a strong effect on how immersive the scene is. For example:
Her heart began to race as she crept into the room. The sound of breaking glass had drawn her downstairs. She checked the windows and doors, but everything was still locked. She tightened her grip on the bat she kept in the hall closet. The faint scent of sulfur suggested her visitor might not have been human.
Step back a moment and imagine walking through the scene itself in real life. What’s the order things would actually happen? It would probably be something like:
- Hear breaking glass
- Heart races
- Get weapon
- Go downstairs
- Enter room
- Smell sulfur
- Check windows and doors
A rewrite of the same scene in order:
The sound of breaking glass downstairs sent her heart racing. She moved quietly to the hall closet and retrieved the baseball bat she kept there. When she crept quietly down the stairs and into the room, the faint smell of sulfur suggested her visitor might not be human. She tightened her grip on the bat and began checking the windows and doors. Everything was still locked.
Notice how there isn’t anything new in the rewrite, but the feel of it is much more immersive. We’re in the character’s head, experiencing things in the order she experiences them. The result feels more “showing” and less “telling,” but also feels more polished. It’s the difference between hearing a joke from a teller who has to backtrack to fill in details (“oh, and there was a bat, I forgot to mention that. So there she is with a bat…”) and a joke from a professional comedian who has practiced it enough to tell it seamlessly.
Again, one or two of these ordering issues won’t ruin a book. But if you do it over and over again, the writing loses clarity. It might not even register consciously for readers, but if you compare a block of writing with a lot of ordering problems to one without, the latter will feel much more polished and professional.