Trust Your Readers

I noticed some comments by our regular readers/writers on a pet peeve of mine. The use (and, in this case, the punctuation involved) of “then” or “then and.” The comments which came back, explaining the grammatical correctness of various examples were fine. But they skipped the idea of my pet peeve.

When I was teaching English at Salt Lake Community, and later at Utah Valley University, we occasionally had an assignment where students were required to explain, in considerable detail, something which they knew how to do, but had to explain to a novice. It could be about making some woodworking item, cooking a meal, baking a cake, knitting a scarf, etc. The subject needed only to be something they knew and understood how to do. The object was to “teach” someone else how to do the same thing. On paper.

That was when I began to notice what I now call “Timeline” words: then, now, after, before, soon, first, next, etc. The problem, to my mind, is that when groups of such words clutter your explanation of “how to,” they project your distrust of your reader or audience.

Someone writes about mixing a cake:

“First, you need to decide on the type of cake you want to bake.”

“Before you begin, decide which pots and pans you’ll need, mixing bowls, utensils, etc.”

“Then you gather all your ingredients.”

On and on. Even for a fairly simple task, the instructions and constant reminders of what to do when make for a confusing presentation. I found that if students wrote their instructions in a logical order, clarifying where necessary what they meant by each section, they did not need words like “And then . . .” “After that . . .” “First, . . .” (and this was always one of the worst offenders because, too often, two or three paragraphs later they would say “First, . . .” again. How can two things be done “first” ? ? ? Worse still, many students would write “Then, . . .” Three sentences later: “And then, you . . .” and ‑‑‑ for variety’s sake ‑‑‑ they might throw in a “Finally, you . . .” or “Last . . .” (or even “Lastly . . .”) Ugh!

This even carries over into the writing of fiction. You’re so afraid the readers won’t be able to keep track of the sequence of events, you label each step to clarify. What it really does is muddle the issue.

If you write your instructions ‑‑‑ or your fictional events ‑‑‑ in chronological order, and the instructions or details are clear, you won’t need any Timeline. If you throw them into the mix anyway, you are telling your reader “I don’t trust you to see events or tasks in the right order, if I don’t keep labeling their order for you.” Please, don’t assume your reader is stupid.

Cut most, if not all, Timeline words. Your clarity and the logical order of your writing will be enough.