Matthew Bryant is secretary of GFW Writers group and also is our in-house professor of the new Grammar Etiquette blog series, posted the second Wednesday of every month. He is an English teacher in Denton, TX. When he isn't teaching he is ghost writing and working on his novel. He says with small children he has learned to write fast.
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As early as grade school, teachers begin driving systems into our heads. The first thing that comes to mind is the wondrous MLA format. Did you just cringe? I do hope so. As an English teacher, a lot of students will ask me about this. And to be perfectly honest, I don’t require it. But as an experienced educator, I understand its purpose.
In order to get their children out of bed and ready for the day, there’s a certain routine that they follow. In any order, it involves getting up, eating breakfast, putting on clothes, brushing teeth, brushing hair, and getting everything together to take with them. This routine, when copied enough times, becomes paramount. Not only does it make things easier on the parent, who needs to get out of the house on time to get their own day going, but it institutes these ideas into the child’s head for when they grow up and need to get themselves ready.
The same is true in writing. MLA format, while it sends dark chills down my spine at the overall blandness of it, brings about the necessity of a proper flow in writing. Establishing an idea, then following through with reason and example is how people prefer to read things. It adds a level of comfort and understanding to the reader/listener so that it makes it easier to follow. Attempts to stray from some sense of organization will often add an unnecessary complexity that leads to a loss of interest or an inability to keep up.
The same is true in writing. If you’re going to implement something into a story, it’s more often than not going to require some sort of explanation. This reasoning should, in terms of flow, come soon after the action. Explain it before hand and you’ll be sending them back to retrace their steps instead of moving forward. Explain it too late and the audience is left dwelling on the confusion of this instance instead of paying attention to anything that may be occurring between point A and point B.
Does this mean that everything should happen sequentially? No, not at all. A perfect example would be Audrey Niffenegger’s novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife. While the story in no way goes in order, jumping around like a cracked-out monkey in a trampoline emporium, the story unfolds in a logical manner. It’s written in such a way that it’s easy to follow, but the time warps allow for several ‘Eureka’ moments, springing connections on the reader in a way that explains previous happenings that seemed of little importance previously, but now mean so much more that they’ve been linked.
So back to my students. I don’t require MLA format because it’s just a suggestion. I want them to be able to establish flow on their own. If it’s proven that they are incapable of this, then I’ll recommend they go back to the basics. If not, I feel like being stuck within this format inhibits their creativity. I’ve had freshmen write out essays that ran for three pages and the flow actually followed the ideals of a rising action and climax within their expository piece. These moments make my heart swell with pride.
I’ve also had seniors turn in three paragraphs out of order. So as you can see: win some, lose some. This is why pre-drafts are so important. As much as I love writing by the seat of my pants, about halfway through my novels I end up writing out a timeline (that I sometimes follow). By the second draft, however, I always ensure that I have ample notes to insure that proper information is delivered at an acceptable time. Just because the story flows sequentially doesn’t mean that the ideas and information do as well.