The power of chronology in writing

Life drawing class, 2008,

As a writing coach, I’ve worked with several women writers on memoir. Again and again, the following scenario happens.

The writer submits a well-written chapter focused on one area of their life that had particular importance. Perhaps the chapter is on their only brother, with whom they’ve shared many events of epic proportion.

Again and again, the writer writes these profound events wildly out of order. The chapter opens with the writer and her brother as adults, slides back to the writer at age 20, veers to age four, then leaps from ages 14 to 8 to 36.

Writing all over the map is very normal in rough drafts. I say these chapters are well-written when they arrive in my email box because the writer has sweated over the wording and the transitions. But structurally, they are not well-written.

Unfortunately, we have to throw it all out and begin again. I tell the writer: Make a timeline on a long roll of paper and post it above your writing desk. List events as they happened in linear order. You’ll find you add a few events that aren’t currently in your chapter. These events will occur to you as you line things up.

Cut and paste all of the information in the existing chapter, and using the timeline put everything into chronological order. Write new transitions. You’ll come to new conclusions.

Isn’t this boring? some of them ask.

I say: Actually, this is just the rough draft. If you want to play with moving the elements around, first you have to get the rough draft properly written in correct order. Then you can spice it up. You usually won’t need to, because the story will tell itself in deep and realistic ways that won’t need any more bling added.

When you put your writing in chronological order, you start to see greater cause and affect, in ways you didn’t see before. You’ll connect the dots more clearly. Different pictures will emerge.

“Oh, so my brother lost his job AFTER my father revealed that family secret to him…I never put those two together before!”

Chronological order works like a chiropractic treatment for the soul. It aligns elements in their correct physical order and allows light to course through and heal the unhealed parts.

If you’re stuck on a chapter in your memoir, try rewriting it in chronological order. Be prepared to be hit by sudden unexpected healing — it can have intense consequences.

I’m a writing coach. Contact me for a free initial consultation.


One thought on “The power of chronology in writing

  1. Yes, yes, YES! I found I couldn’t write about certain things without figuring out the chronology first. At first I thought I might be stalling or obsessing, but I found that it greatly helped me to segway from one incident to the next. and, Yes, it was very eye-opening! 🙂
    Paula Richards


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