Being a Better Writer: Order of Operations

Hello again, readers, and welcome to yet another Being a Better Writer post with an ominous, math-based title!

I know, I know. Forty percent of you clicked away after reading that sentence. Another fifty percent didn’t make it past seeing the title. And the twenty percent that are left? They know what’s wrong with that last statement.

Actually, if you’re quick on the uptake, you might have realized that there’s more than one error in that last paragraph. The first most probably spotted, but the second …? Well, it has to do with our title, which means that this is as good a point as any to dive right in and get into things.

So, let’s go ahead and start then. Except … unlike normal, I actually want to start today with a bit of a hands-on moment. A writing prompt, if you will. You may have noticed that there’s a scenic picture below. See it? You might need to hit the jump. Anyway, it’s a picture of the Kennecott Copper Mine ghost town in Alaska. This particular picture was shared to Reddit, IIRC, so hopefully it’s all right to use it here. I didn’t take it, is what I’m saying, and the goal here is to use it for educational purposes. You can click on it to see it in all its glory (which I recommend).

Now, here’s what I want you to do. I want you, in one paragraph, large or small (your call, but smaller is a little better, both for illustration’s sake and time’s sake), to describe this ghost town. Go ahead. Take five, ten sentences or so and describe this scene as if you were writing it in a novel or something, as if someone is seeing it for the first time. Got it? Look at the picture, describe the scene! Then come back and move on. Go!



Okay, are you done? Have you finished spending a few sentences on this little ghost town? Okay, good. Now that you’ve done that, I want you to read mine … and let’s see what happens here.

The first thing she noticed was the windows, staring back at her like open eye-sockets. Empty, open eye-sockets. A few held glass, but most of them were open to the elements, and even those that were closed had a dirty, weathered look. Much like the rest of the town. The dull, collective red of the buildings was faded, worn away by wind and snow until specks of brown wood poked through—One building off to the side barely had any color left to its face at all. But it was the largest of the lot, the towering, almost jumbled structure atop the hill, looking for all the world like several structures had been mashed together, that held her eyes. There, she told herself as she looked up at the structure. That’s where I’d have the best view. That’s where they’ll be.

Okay, that’s that, so we’re all well and good, right? Now, I want to ask you something: what was different about the mental image you built with your paragraph from the one that mine built?

With any luck—actually, scratch that. Barring cosmic coincidence, there should be some fairly big differences between our two descriptions, even though we’re describing the same thing.

Now, this shouldn’t be new to you as a writer. Obviously, each person is going to come at their description of a scene from a different angle. The resulting mental image is going to be different. But now let me ask a different question, one you may not have been expecting. Clear your mind, look back at what you wrote, and just read through the first description. Just the first. What do you “see” in your head.

Now, clear your head of that and read my description. Now what do you “see” first?

Now keep doing this. Read through the first three things you wrote about, and then read through the first three descriptors I gave. Now again compare the two mental images you’ve made. How different are they? Again, even though we’re describing the same scene, and though these mental images may become similar as the description goes on, the two will likely always be slightly different.

One last example to make of things, and by then I think you’ll see where I’m going with this. Say I took my description above and flipped it around. What if I’d started by talking about the large, jumbled-together building first, rather than last, and then worked my way backwards? So “jumbled building at top of hill,” then “wooden buildings,” then “dull, weather-worn red,” and last brought up the “empty, eye-socket windows?”

How different again would that scene be in the reader’s mind?

What I’ve been getting at with all these different scenarios is what the title of this post alludes to: This “order of operations.” See, in math (there’s that scary word again), equations have an order of operations, or a sort of mechanical hierarchy that the numbers have to follow. And the order that the numbers are placed in, along with the signs used, indicate in what order an equation should be worked out.

So, for example, multiplication and division are always done before addition or subtraction. So the equation “2 – 16 ÷ 8” would not be turned into “-14 ÷ 8” but rather “2 – 2” because 16 divided by 8 is two. So the proper answer is zero.

What does this have to do with writing? Well, imagine that the equation I just demonstrated is instead a scene that you wish to describe to your reader. Now ask yourself where will you start in order to build that scene?

See, with the math equation, if we start off in the wrong place and do things out of order, it changes the answer to be incorrect. In a similar manner, when we begin describing anything in our writing—a scene, a character, whatever—we need to pay close attention to the order that we present these observations in, because putting one before the other can have surprisingly far-reaching consequences. The reader’s mind is a bit like a canvas, and whatever we draw their focus to first? That will likely be the locus that much of their attention and mental imagery revolves around.

Now, here’s the fun part. Unlike math, where there is a correct order of operations for every problem, there isn’t any “correct” order of operations for the description of your scene, setting, characters, etc. This doesn’t mean that you won’t get a different answer based on what order you take, but it doesn’t mean that there’s a solid “Do this” for every step. Unlike math, where the result always has to be the same, in writing, we’re a bit more flexible. So the “correct” order of operations for your scene isn’t something set in stone every time, but instead something that is only determined by the “answer” you’re looking to get.

Perhaps I’m carrying this analogy a bit to far, so let me come at this from another angle: The crux of what I’m getting at is that how you describe something to your reader, the order in which your description is laid out, matters just as much as much for forming a mental image as the description being given in the first place. And two descriptions of the same scene, as shown in the little “hands-on” moment at the beginning of this article, can paint a very different mental picture even based on what’s said first.

If it helps, think of each scene you give to your reader like a painting. In a painting, there are certain layers that come first or last to varying degrees of prominence. So if I want to describe, for example, a spooky little town, and I tell the reader first that “Mist curled through the air like a living thing,” that creates a base layer that everything else is built on. “Mist curled through the air like a living thing, coiling around the bare wooden structures” paints a picture in the mind, one that starts with the curling, living mists and draws the buildings in to fill out the image. Now, if I flip that, we get the opposite affect. “The bare wooden structures were shrouded in coiled mists” is equally evocative … but at the same time it puts things in the reader’s mind in that reverse order. Buildings first, then the mists.

Does this matter? Well, yes, it does! Be it characters, backgrounds, settings … whatever! The order in which you present things is going to determine just how your reader envisions it. And that can have far reaching consequences.

So say you’re introducing a character. What attributes of that character do you want to take prescience in the reader’s mental picture? Is it their crazy hair? Their stubble? Their thin face? What should come first? What will be the groundwork that all of the other descriptions will be built upon?

An example from my current project, Jungle. In Jungle, one of the new characters we’ll meet is a scientist named Morel. When describing him, however, I gave the reader two things up front: First, that he was nervous and unsure, almost fearful, about everything going on, and second that he is a bit portly and overweight. This was because the most important thing that I wanted his character built on was that he was nervous and fearful of things—a bit of a hypochondriac, really—and second that he was a little portly. Readers, given the nervousness first, build the mental image on that.

Now, bear in mind character voice and viewpoint when considering what to talk about first. In fact, this can be a great tool to highlight different “voices” between your characters. If one character see’s another’s physical prowess first, while a second instead comments on their smooth, casual demeanor, we’re given not only different pictures to help with the voice, but also given insight into each character that we’ve been in the perspective of.

Okay, so this is all well and good, but before I close … A word of warning. Well, several words, actually. Much like how a painting can be improperly presented, drawing the eye to the wrong part of the scene, so can your description  derail everything you’ve worked towards if you don’t take care.

Case in point: I once read a story where someone introduced their cast, and, without realizing it, made a major mistake: the very first thing they described for each character was their race. Every. Single. One.

Now, they had a very diverse cast from all over … but that simple choice of first line of description almost caused their story to be eaten alive by the crowds. Because, sad to say, it invited people to make the character’s races the first and foremost defining element in reader’s minds … and you can probably guess how well that went. Stereotypes were assigned, personal prejudices came out, angry comments made … It was a mess. And it could have all been avoided. Even simply moving the character’s race to one of the final descriptions given would have severely changed the outcome of the reader’s mindsets. But by making it first and foremost, it made it the most “important” factor of the characters. And … trouble!

Now, you don’t need to make that faux pas to accidentally draw your scene in the wrong way. All it takes is presenting something in the wrong order. But with a little practice and a keen eye for detail, you can avoid this misstep and keep things on track.

One last note. You can save a shocking revelation, such as “He held a knife” for last, since something that shouts at everyone’s attention or makes for a tonal shift can really grab the reader’s focus.

Now, let’s recap: The order in which you present your scene, setting, or character matters. What’s said first will lay the ground layer, with each successive description building upon those early words to add more detail. So keep this in mind as you play out your descriptions of characters. What’s most important? What builds on what? Where do you want the reader’s mind to go?

Do this, and you’ll see your work come to life more than ever.

Good luck. Now go get writing.



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One thought on “Being a Better Writer: Order of Operations

  1. Congratulations on coming up with something new – I have a PhD in Nuclear Engineering, so I understood your math – but hadn’t thought of the order of presenting information, though I’ve been writing for over 20 years. (And you can alter order of operations with parentheses.)

    I don’t describe people, at least not the main characters, because I want the reader to form an image out of all the hints (and describing a character is something I consider an info dump in most cases). I have to force myself to read those descriptions in other people’s writing. I prefer to have the description of ONE character come from the pov of another, because that does double duty and characterizes both of them simultaneously, and because I write a very tight multiple third person. Descriptions are so often an intrusion from a narrator.

    But I do describe places – as the character would notice them.

    I go by instinct, but I’m going to enjoy seeing what I’ve done, now that you’ve shown a light on this particular aspect.

    Well done!

    Liked by 1 person

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