This article first appeared in the Teaching Professor on September 9, 2019. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.
As a writing teacher, I’ve discovered that counseling writers to sequence details logically does more for their writing, their readers, and their intellectual development than encouraging them to take risks or to make art. Plot really is everything. Not just in story writing but in all writing and most thinking.
By sequencing I mean the arrangement of events: what happened first, and what follows next. In any discipline, and in any genre, the good writer anticipates the reader’s needs and delivers information as it is needed. When writers place details in an ordered sequence, they create a more cohesive image and a better reading experience. It’s courteous too. Rather than asking readers to do the heavy lifting of sequencing information, writers do that work for them.
The sequence is the experience. The experience should be smooth—or to use a good academic word, logical. Logically sequenced details move from what the reader knows to what the reader does not know. Only when the unknown is made known does the story move to the next unknown. Writing that moves in this way “flows” (Irish & Weiss, 2008).
One method for teaching students in any discipline how to write prose that flows is to ask them to write stories, and that’s what I’m advocating here.
Teaching narrative to teach sequencing
A wealth of literature exists about why we should teach storytelling in all our courses. Much of this literature stands on humanist grounds. By telling stories, the argument goes, we learn empathy, discover ourselves, and become more humane.
I take issue with none of these reasons. But I go further and argue there’s another, better reason: narrative gives teachers an easy way to talk about organizing information. To write a story, a writer must ask important questions: Where does this story begin? Where does it end? What comes first? What is the focal point of the action?
By learning how to ask these story questions, we can develop our intuitions as researchers. We see that the logic of story writing corresponds with the logic of presenting data in a research paper—and that we can make sense of data only if we put it in a logical order so that it shows a picture of reality. When the sequence is out of whack, our understanding crumbles, just like a story torques when the sequence is scrambled.
Storytelling gives teachers many ways to teach logic. Let’s start by considering what a logical, sequential story opening looks like.
If writing moves from known to unknown, then the first movement in a sequence must be a known quantity. Readers must be informed at the start. As such, writers must bring readers into a situation, orient readers to the text, and show them where they are in relation to the events of the story.
In teaching storytelling for many years, I have noticed that new writers often shy away from inserting firm locators in a story. A first draft typically opens with generality. Here is the opening paragraph of a story I edited recently.
I put on my white apron over my white shirt, white leggings, and white shirt, then put my white nurse’s hat on and stepped inside the delivery room.
This opening, clear in its own way, tells us two important details. First, the narrator is a nurse who wears a lot of white. And second, the story takes place in a hospital delivery room, so we know what’s happening.
Through conversation, I discovered that the writer was a student nurse in a hospital in the Philippines. These details are important to establishing the situation. The Philippines is not Quebec, or anywhere else, and a nursing student is not an experienced nurse. These details clarify the setting and sharpen our understanding of the narrator, and as such, these details should appear early in the sequence. If they do not appear early in the sequence, the writer takes the risk that readers will default to their own experiences. A reader can’t be faulted for imagining that the story takes place in a hospital in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1955.
Consider the revision:
I stood with 10 other third-year nursing students outside the neonatal care unit in the school hospital at the University of the Philippines. I put my white apron over my nurse whites and stepped inside the delivery room for my first delivery.
And now we have a set of details that make this story interesting. These include details that inform the reader of the narrator’s situation: she is a student, she is in a specific place, and crucially, she is attending to her first delivery.
Locators shape what the reader anticipates. The firmer the locator, the greater the sense of direction a reader will have. With clear details, readers can imagine more of the picture than if they receive generalized images. In this way, more details free the reader.
This aspect of storytelling logic ports over to other genres of writing. News stories start with datelines. An email has a subject line (a microscopic but important locator). An argumentative paper may begin with a definition. A history starts with the historical context necessary to understand the argument.
Research too needs to establish the opening. How many students wander the world in their introductory paragraphs as they search for a place for the paper? Indeed, not knowing how to place the research in an overarching question can certainly lead students (and even seasoned researchers) to feel lost. Sequencing demands that we find the story’s opening and know where it fits within a broader context. Teachers can help students by guiding them through three important questions:
- Where am I in relation to this research? Or: What do I know about this topic?
- Where is this research in relation to other research? Or: What do I understand of the context of this research?
- When I look at my data, where does it begin? Or: What is the first thing I need to make known to the people reading my research? To myself?
This is sequencing. For experienced writers, setting up an establishing shot is intuitive. New writers often need a reminder—and that’s good. Giving the reminder to make locators explicit sharpens the text, but it also allows teachers to reiterate the rationale behind this move.
Sequencing operates at the macro level—where does this story or argument begin?—and at the level of the sentence. A logically sequenced sentence reads from left to right—literally and figuratively. When it does not, writers risk losing their readers.
Consider the following sentence:
I run downstairs to eat a bowl of Cheerios, having rushed myself through a cold shower after rolling out of bed a half hour late.
This sentence reads well enough. Microsoft Word will not catch any problems with it. But notice that the events unfold out of sequence. The last event (eating Cheerios) appears first in the sequence, and the earliest event (rolling out of bed) appears last.
Taken in isolation, this sentence does not create much confusion. But it does tax the reader, albeit slightly. We can only hold so much in our short-term memory, and if the writer follows this sentence with another discontinuity, we’ll begin to feel labored.
As a teacher I’d point out this inverted sequence and encourage the writer to tell the story in the order that events happened.
I roll out of bed a half hour late, suffer through a cold shower, and run downstairs to eat a bowl of Cheerios.
An individual sentence that places details out of order will not derail a story. But several disjointed sentences will. And if the disjointed sentence happens to be a key sentence—like a definition or a thesis statement—the reader’s understanding could warp at precisely the wrong moment.
Teachers who want to teach sequential, logical thinking through sequential, logical writing should consider the following:
- Ask students to write life stories. In writing short memoirs related to the content of the course, teachers can alert students to the importance of placing details in order. Years ago, in a business communications class I used to teach, I asked students to write a story about a moment at work when things went wrong. This assignment offered me, as the teacher, a lot to work with. I was able to use the story to teach the particulars of writing—good sentences, strong verbs, sharp details. The story also required students to explain the ins and outs of their professions and to present readers with the right details at the right moment. By writing about a moment from their lives, students did not have to conduct research or worry about citations. They could instead focus on the quality of the sentences and the arrangement of detail.
- Assign writing that emphasizes sequences. Assign students papers that require them to order information in a sequence. For example, ask students to write about biological and mechanical processes, like the process of decomposition or the path water takes through a processing plant, in a sequence. Assign storytelling. Ask them to write biographies of key players in their fields. A history of an idea. Chronologies of events. Resumes, which need to be in reverse sequence.
- Incorporate sequencing in draft work. To emphasize sequencing early in the draft phase, encourage students to organize their research and draft work in numbered lists. Numbered lists indicate hierarchy, and students writing histories, process documents, or anything else that travels along a sequence can see the sequence more clearly when they have clearly numbered guideposts. When students hand in the final draft, they can remove the numbers.
- Use the language of sequence and logic. It is popular today to talk about “story” and “narrative.” These terms get to the same point, but teachers may find utility in speaking directly and explicitly about “order,” “sequence,” “logic,” and “flow.” Insert these terms in the titles and descriptions of assignments. Press these concepts regularly.
I advocate bringing storytelling into any classroom. Not only does narrative humanize, but it also educates us about how to put things in order. When details are out of sequence, so is my mind. To arrange the details in a logical order, in a reasoned manner, I have to work things through. I have to see the details clearly so that I understand them.
And when I understand them, I can share them with others.
Robert Grant Price, PhD, lectures at the University of Toronto Mississauga.
Irish, R., & Weiss, P. (2008). Engineering communication: From principles to practice. Toronto: Oxford University Press.