During my days as a high school and middle school English teacher, I used to get a lot of narrative essay first drafts that included an overuse of “then” or “and then…” to link together the various parts of the story. First we did this, then we did that, then we did that other thing, and then it all got resolved. It was a bit like reading a series of police reports. Their essays were often just a list of actions to get their story from point A to point B, with very little narrative artistry in between. But we all lack a bit of literary polish when we first begin writing, and I enjoyed teaching them how to enliven those series of actions.
The manuscripts I edit now are much more polished, often beautifully written, and yet I find a lot of writers still struggle with the word “then.” They depend on it. They overuse it. And, more often than not, they use it incorrectly.
In fact, one of the most commonly misused or erroneously punctuated words I see when editing is the word “then.” I most often see it used as a coordinating conjunction, a joiner word, but that’s not its grammatical role.
Here’s an example: Steve spent the evening reading then went to bed.
That sentence sort of reads all right. It looks like it would work. But it’s grammatically incorrect.
Grammar’s coordinating conjunctions, words that can be used to join up clauses and different parts of a sentence, even have their own mnemonic to help you remember them. The FANBOYS are for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so.
So, how could we fix the sentence about Steve? We could add a coordinating conjunction.
Steve spent the evening reading and then went to bed.
We could also add a coordinating conjunction and separate the sentence into two independent clauses. To make the second half independent, we’ll need to add a subject pronoun too.
Steve spent the evening reading, and then he went to bed.
Or we could get rid of “then” entirely and draw out these actions, painting them in more vivid, tangible colors for our readers. Let’s face it, if you, as an author, need to tell your reader about your character’s actions in a blow-by-blow way, you need to make it worth their while.
Steve spent the evening reading the same book he’d been half-heartedly skimming all week. The black letters blurred to grey on the white page after about thirty minutes, and he found himself reading the same paragraph over and over, its meaning obscure by the time he reached the final line. Only the L stood out on the page, his eye drawn like a magnet to its sharp angle. He snapped the book shut, turned out the lights, and made his way to bed—an empty bed. He still slept on the left side. The right side would always belong to Lucy.
Do you find yourself using “then” a lot in your writing? If you’re using it, are you using it correctly? Are there other words you use too often and could remove to make your writing stronger?
Christy Caughie is an editor and book cover designer at Champagne Books.