It was a sense of confusion about the past and future that got me thinking about this. I was listening to the news featuring yet another story about what some politician was going to be saying that day, and wondering when this pre-announcement of speeches first started. What was the point at which news programmes stopped reporting what someone had actually said and started instead talking about what they would be saying later that day? And is this trend a way of testing the water, seeing what the reaction to the planned speech is before actually delivering it? Have there been examples of people pulling speeches because the announcement of their intended delivery has caused such an outcry?
And at the other end of the day, I was listening to the weather forecast (the clue is in the name: it’s looking to the future) and wondering when it was decided that so much of it should be given over to what the weather had been like that day. Even with our national obsession with the weather, this seemed the least interesting piece of news I could imagine. Again, when did a programme with a future purpose begin to focus so much on the past?
And both thoughts led me to the chronological organisation of information in writing. We are very used these days to complicated narrative structures in films and books, in which events are presented in multiple time frames and the reader or viewer is required to construct their own chronology of the narrative. When these work well, there is a sense of excitement in the experience of reading or watching them. When they work badly, they are more irritating and frustrating than dodgy straightforward narratives.
I remember, in my teaching days, my confusion when the children in a particularly challenging class didn’t comply with my instruction, at the end of the lesson, to tidy their chairs away before they left the room. At least, that’s how I remembered the instruction. I talked about it to my head of department, reporting how I had phrased it, which was ‘Before you leave the room, make sure you’ve put your chair neatly behind the desk’. ‘That’s where you went wrong,’ he said. ‘You gave the instruction in the wrong order.’ His idea was that these children acted on the first thing they heard (leaving the room) without necessarily waiting around to hear the rest of the instruction. And, if they did hear the rest of the instruction, by then it was too late: they had already left the room, and they weren’t going to come back into it to complete the last part of the instruction.
Frankly sceptical, I nevertheless decided to try a different instruction the next time I had this class. At the end of the lesson, I got them, as usual, to stand up and gather their bags. First instruction. Then I told them to put their chairs behind their desk: second instruction. And, finally, I allowed them to leave the room. To my surprise, every single student carried out the instructions as I called them.
This has a direct parallel to certain forms of writing. If you want clarity, follow the time sequence. It’s all right to start with ‘After’ or ‘While’ or ‘Once’ because all such words clearly point to a past event. You ought to be a bit wary, though, of starting with words such as ‘Before’ or ‘In order to’ or anything else that indicates a future event before you’ve dealt with the present that needs to precede it. Not always, obviously, but think of the confusion you could wreak on unsuspecting readers following a cooking recipe that defiantly failed to observe a standard time sequence.
Something similar is at play with ‘if’ clauses. Again, a memory supports this theory. My youngest son, then in his first years at primary school and susceptible to bouts of fury he couldn’t always control, would occasionally react in what I thought was a wilfully perverse fashion to some of my attempts to negotiate his behaviour. ‘You’re not going to watch that programme,’ I’d say, ‘if … ’ but before I got to the point where I talked about his behaviour he had already exploded: ‘Oh great!’ he shouted, now really, indignantly angry, ‘now you’re not going to let me watch my favourite programme. What kind of family is this?’ Totally confused, I said, ‘No, that’s not what I said. What I said was ‘I’m not going to let you watch it . . . ’ ‘Oh, brilliant, there you go again,’ he said. ‘You’re not going to let me watch the programme I look forward to more than anything . . . ’ And on and on and on.
So I decided to try things the other way round. ‘If you don’t etc. etc., then’ … whatever the sanction was. To my surprise, this worked. It was a clear case, again, of acting on what he heard first. So obvious, but one of those cases when I hadn’t bothered to think about how what I was going to say would be received by the person I was saying it to. Yet again an illustration of the eternal truth that writing is more effective when the writer is thinking about what the reader will be reading more than about what the writer wants to write.
Something to chew over, perhaps, when you’re next in a train carriage and idly reading those safety instructions that say ‘Pull the safety release lever if you are asked to evacuate the train’ . . .