One important aspect that is often overlooked in the writing process is the structure and order that ideas will appear in the paper. Depending on what you will be writing, there are different organizational structures that may strengthen or weaken your writing based on which you select. This handout is designed to give more information on chronological organization patterns, but you can find more information about other organization patterns from our General Organizational Strategies Guide, which will direct you to other handouts that will address other categories of organization patterns.
Sometimes, you will have a topic that needs to be organized in chronological order. If you’re writing a biography of a person, detailing a historical event, or reviewing a period of time, you likely should write about those things from their earliest point to their latest point in time as demonstrated in the example below.
Joanne Rowling was born July 31, 1965 and grew up with her family in Gloucestershire. When she was six years old, she wrote her very first book featuring the adventures of a rabbit, and ever since then, she wanted to become an author.
This desire didn’t come to fruition until 1990. During a train delay from Manchester to London, the idea of Harry Potter first came to her head, and she continued to plan and develop the magical world of Hogwarts over the next five years. Although she initially struggled to find a publisher to accept Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, it was eventually published by Bloomsbury in 1997. The series gained international acclaim and widespread popularity. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows broke world records for the fastest selling book ever—2.65 million copies in twenty-four hours.
Since the completion of the Harry Potter series, Rowling continues to live in Edinburgh with her three children and husband. Writing continues to be a large part of Rowling’s life, and she has started other writing projects like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and The Cuckoo’s Calling series.
Information about Rowling was collected from the following websites:
“Biography.” J.K Rowling, 2012, http://www.jkrowling.com/en_GB/#/about-jk-rowling
“Biography.” Harry Potter, Bloomsbury, 2012, http://www.harrypotter.bloomsbury.com/uk/jk-rowling-biography/
When discussing order of events, you can organize your paragraphs by decade or by theme. In this case, Rowling’s biography is divided into paragraphs about her early life, the time before and after publishing her first book, and her current life and recent projects. Though it is missing many events, the biography does highlight important aspects concerning her early career. As a writer, you have to pick which events and ideas need to be featured. Notice how the author uses transitional phrases and time markers like “when she was six years old…,” “during a train delay…,” and “since the completion of the Harry Potter series…,” to help keep the biography organized.
With narrative writing, events are most often told chronologically with a clear beginning, middle, and end and often feature a combination of description and dialogue. Although main events may be told in chronological order, there may be references to the past and mentions of past events. Without clearly noting when events are occurring and differentiating between what occurred in the past and what is currently happening, the narrative could become very confusing. Use transitional phrases to indicate these “dips” into the past. Below, we have an example of a narrative that makes these occasional journeys into the past. As you’ll read, this narrative contains a combination of dialogue and description of events. Descriptions become more detailed at more important parts of the story. Note that the transitional phrases and paragraph separations help keep the reader on track and note the transition of time:
When I was old enough to get a driver’s permit, my mom made her role during my driving education very clear: “It’s your Dad’s turn.” She taught my older sister how to drive two years ago, and it seemed that was more than enough for her. Dad laughed it off, claiming that when he was through with me, I’d be the best driver in the family. He had so much faith in me, he let me drive his Lexus rather than the beat up Grand Prix during my first driving lesson. He drove me to an abandoned baseball stadium parking lot and pulled the car next to a giant pile of snow.
As I got out of the passenger seat to take my Dad’s place, I slipped on some ice, landing on the ground and soaking my pants. I should’ve taken this as a sign of things to come. The car door was left open for me, and I slid inside. The seat was so far back, my feet didn’t even touch the pedals. I tried to scoot forward to reach them, and my dad just laughed. I fidgeted in the seat, trying to get comfortable without changing any of the settings. When I was younger, we used to take road trips, and Dad would always get angry whenever Mom altered any of his car settings like the air conditioning or even the mirrors. As I shifted and tried to get comfortable, I was hyper conscious that one wrong setting alteration could make him angry. He let me carry on a few more minutes before he said, “Now, how do you expect to drive like that? Just move the seat.”
Once adjusted, I sat there, staring at the “road” ahead of me. Most of the parking lot had been plowed clean, but there were several icy patches and snow drifts that towered over our tiny car. There were light poles and numbered sections arranged in neat rows. I hoped I wouldn’t crash into one. He then gave me two instructions, “Now, just drive. Don’t hit a snow drift.”
At first, I was too scared to drive more than five miles an hour, but after ten minutes of aimlessly driving around, I got brave. Seven, eight, nine, ten, I felt like I was flying; if I were driving on a real road with real cars, I’d surely get pulled over for speeding. My dad shook his head, “You can go faster than that.”
At fifteen miles an hour, when I tried to turn around a pole, the car slid into a snow drift. The yelling started immediately. I was so desperate to get out, I almost ran out of the car without putting the car in park. The yelling grew louder, and I felt like a small child. Once the car was parked, I bolted out of the car and waited for my dad to circle the car. After determining the car was relatively unharmed, we both went into the car, trading seats to release me from my first driving lesson. When we got home, Dad said that Mom could suck it up and teach me how to drive from now on.
If you look closely at the example above, you will note that the author uses phrases like “two years ago” and “when I was younger” to signal to the audience that she is going even further back in time. The author is sure to differentiate between what is currently happening in the story and what happened in the past. It is important to be clear with your audience about the timeline when writing in chronological order.