Tis the season for lists, even for those who aren’t naturally checklist and to-do list types. For the holidays, people will make packing lists, shopping lists, cleaning lists, address lists, and wish lists.
Lists are useful and practical, but they can serve a far more creative and powerful role in the life of a writer. You may find the humble list becomes the most used tool in your writer’s toolbox.
Let’s look at how lists can transform your writing…and your life.
1. A list is a quick way to generate ideas
Whether you’re keeping a journal or meeting an article deadline, lists are quick ways to write during busy seasons.
- Make a list of the big ideas you want to cover in a nonfiction book, and you’ve formed a working Table of Contents.
- Lists are the basis of roundup articles—a quick and rewarding project for both writer and reader.
- List everything you know about a topic or scene you plan to write, and your list establishes what you already know and reveals what you have yet to find out. Thanks to the list, you can plan your research and fill in the gaps.
- Keep an ongoing list of article headlines or chapter titles you’d love to tackle someday and you’ve got an idea bank to draw from when you’re ready for something new. When you have time minutes free, add to the list.
- Keep a writer’s notebook packed with lists that include descriptions, timelines, character notes, and snatches of dialogue.
- Make a list of unfortunate events you can throw at your characters and you’ll have the makings of your next novel’s plot.
2. A list tricks us into bypassing writer’s block
Lists can help us break free from writer’s block by stripping away a lot of the elements typically expected from a creative project. And the act of list-making is so unassuming, so doable, so quick to pull off, we can bypass the things that hold us back or block us, like fear, lack of ideas, confusion, uncertainty.
Start a list and you almost can’t stop your brain from producing another item and another. The brain loves lists. If you’re stuck, you may find you’re unstuck by the time you scribble the fourth or fifth entry.
You might as well keep going. Next thing you know, you’ve written the draft or the outline of a poem, essay, short story, or blog post.
3. A list is flexible
As you write, your list expands and contracts to match the evolution of your ideas. As you edit, you can delete or combine items as needed.
4. A list builds in limits
While allowing for flexibility, lists also form natural boundaries.
In “A List of Reasons Why Our Brains Love Lists,” Maria Konnikova says the human brain responds to the way a list “spatially organizes the information; and it promises a story that’s finite, whose length has been quantified upfront.”1
If a single idea seems too convoluted, corral it. Deal with idea-sprawl by cramming it into a list. By defining and limiting our ideas, our writer-minds relax; we don’t have to say it all.
5. A list instantly organizes our ideas
When I introduced the 6+1 Traits, one of the early traits we must tend to after settling on a solid idea is Organization. How will we organize these concepts or present the stories?
Try a list. It’s a quick tool to organize and contain ideas when you have no idea how to organize or structure your material. Possible forms for your project may reveal themselves in the process of expanding, editing, and ordering the list.
Categorize and group them. Enumerate them. Your reader’s brains, Konnikova writes, “love effortlessly acquired data,”2 and your writer-brain loves structure.
6. A list is easy to scan
Copyblogger’s Brian Clark wrote seven reasons why a list post will “always work.” With a list, he says, we promise a “quantifiable return on attention investment.”3 This motivates people to commit.
Konnikova pointed out that by making the process of consuming the content simpler, tidier, categorizing and grouping information in clumps and marking each section with numbers or bullet points, “the mental heavy lifting of conceptualization, categorization, and analysis is completed well in advance of actual consumption.”4
Our brains, she writes, love “effortlessly acquired data.”5
So give your hurried reader the invitation to skim. Give him a list.
7. A list can become the work itself
While a list can store ideas and fuel longer projects, occasionally a list can actually become the project itself, the two most obvious options being a list essay and a list or “catalog” poem.
List essays like “Hateful Things”6 and list (or catalog) poems like “I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry”7 and Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”8 present images and ideas of varying degrees of complexity, intrigue, or hilarity using lists.
Your entire novel won’t be a list, but a ThoughtCo article by Richard Nordquist points out that “in descriptive prose, writers sometimes employ lists (or series) to bring a person or a place to live [sic] through the sheer abundance of precise details.”9 To illustrate, they offer some examples of a series—lists packed into passages of prose—from classic literature.
It’s possible to go overboard, so use lists in your prose judiciously. Nordquist warns that too many will “exhaust a reader’s patience. But used selectively and arranged thoughtfully, lists can be downright fun.”10
8. A list can expand your vocabulary
Priscilla Long writes in The Writer’s Portable Mentor:
The writers of deep and beautiful works spend real time gathering words. They learn the names of weeds and tools and types of roof. They make lists of color words (ruby, scarlet, cranberry, brick).11
They made word collection a habit. She lists several examples:
- Leonardo da Vinci kept a list of words and ended up with more than 9,000.
- James Joyce kept a list of words and phrases and intentionally used them in Ulysses, crossing each one out after it was included.
- Mary Oliver recorded in a notebook any bug or bones she’d find outside.
“If such writers do their lexicon work,” Long claims, “so also should we.”12
Our personal Lexicon can be simply a list of words that strike our fancy, words from our childhood, color words, or even, she suggests, something we’ve never learned the names of, like the parts of a window or the names of weeds in our garden.13
You don’t have to purposefully incorporate them into your drafts like James Joyce did, however, crossing them off the list after one use. Long says, “Just work on the Lexicon on a regular basis, as a form of play. It is remarkable how the words you put in your own Lexicon have a way of creeping into your writing.”14
9. A list can slow you down
Lists may be a quick way to write, but a list can also slow you down…in a good way.
When our minds spin in a dozen directions at 90 miles an hour or continually fight distraction, we need a tool to slow and steady us. A list can be that tool to ground us, focus us, calm us.
In her book Make a List, Marilyn McEntyre writes, “It slows the scampering mind and tempers argument with imagination.”15
Use lists as a slow-down solution by drawing ideas from guided journals or list prompts found online or in a book like Marilyn’s. Focus in so your mind is on one thing, in one place, at one moment in time: pen on paper, write your list, one item after another.
10. A list can help you go deep
We’ve all read quick, surface-level collections thrown together at the last minute. We may have written them ourselves. There’s a place for that kind of list—readers love them, after all—but you can use them as a way to go deep, as well.
In Make a List, McEntyre writes, “In the process of making a list, I generally find that I can, as a therapist used to advise, ‘go to the place in me that knows.’ Line by line, I can take myself there.”16
And just because she’s talking about going to a place that seems serious and introspective, one can have a light approach.
[I]f you stay with it and take it slowly, take it seriously but playfully, give yourself plenty of permission to put down whatever comes up, you begin to clarify your values, your concerns, the direction your life is taking, your relationship to your inner voice, your humor, your secrets. You discover the larger things that lists can reveal.17
From this deep work we may unearth memories and stories we can use in our writing to add nuance, vulnerability, and insight. Our voice may become stronger, our direction clearer, and those larger things we discover can be passed along to the world, a gift. If nothing else, we’ll become healthier people along the way.
11. A gratitude list can change your life
At Thanksgiving, the idea of gratitude bubbles to the surface for obvious reasons, but we can make it a daily habit throughout the year.
New York Times bestselling author Ann Voskamp cites research about how keeping a gratitude journal can transform people:
Participants who’d kept a gratitude journal felt better about their lives as a whole and were more optimistic about the future … they were a full 25 percent happier than the other participants.
They sleep 1/2 hour more per evening, and exercise 33 percent more each week and felt more joyful, enthusiastic, interested, attentive, energetic, excited, determined, and strong.18
For years, Ann kept a gratitude list on her blog. She called her list One Thousand Gifts. A few years in, she shared in book form the concepts she learned from that practice—the transformation she experienced—and she now speaks around the world about the power of gratitude.
It’s inspiring to look back after all these years and see her first three entries, which she’s posted on her website:
- Morning shadows across old floors
- Jam piled high on toast
- Cry of a blue jay high in the spruce19
So simple, so concrete. Anyone can keep a list like that. And yet that simple practice can bring us perspective, life, and light.
My friend Laura Lynn Brown has followed this same practice of recording things she’s thankful for. I asked how it began for her:
“I was floundering, and a good friend tossed me a life preserver: start a gratitude list. ‘Five things, every night,’ she said. Eleven years later, it still buoys me.”20
Try a List
Take advantage of this easy tool to break free from your typical approach to an article, poem, essay—even…to life.
Next time you sit down to write, try a list.
- “A List of Reasons Why Our Brains Love Lists,” by Maria Konnikova, The New Yorker
- “7 Reasons Why List Posts Will Always Work,” by Brian Clark, Copyblogger
- “How to Be a Better Writer (Pt 4): Boost All 7 Traits of Great Writing,” podcast episode 169, which highlights the 6+1 Traits
- “Stop Waiting for Last-Minute Writing Inspiration” (using headlines to generate article ideas)
- “Hateful Things,” by Sei Shonagon, mslaura, Viviente.com
- “I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry,” a fragment of Jubilate Agno, by Christopher Smart, poets.org
- “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” by Wallace Stevens, The Poetry Foundation
- “Writing With Lists: Using the Series in Descriptions,” Richard Nordquist, ThoughtCo
- The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life, by Priscilla Long [affiliate link]
- Make a List: How a Simple Practice Can Change Our Lives and Open Our Hearts, Marilyn McEntyre [affiliate link]
- “7 Things I Learned from Reading 15 List Essays,” by John Proctor via Numero Cinq Magazine
- “Why Gratitude is Good,” Greater Good, University of Berkeley
- “A Note from Ann,” Ann Voskamp
- “Five Things, Every Day,” Laura Lynn Brown
- “A List of Reasons Why Our Brains Love Lists,” by Maria Konnikova, The New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/tech/annals-of-technology/a-list-of-reasons-why-our-brains-love-lists
- 7 Reasons Why List Posts Will Always Work,” by Brian Clark, Copyblogger: https://www.copyblogger.com/7-reasons-why-list-posts-will-always-work/, accessed 19 November, 2018.
- Konnikova, The New Yorker
- “Hateful Things,” by Sei Shonagon, mslaura, Viviente.com: http://www.viviente.com/2006/09/hateful_things_by_sei_shonagon_1.html, accessed 20 November, 2018.
- “I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry,” a fragment of Jubilate Agno, by Christopher Smart, poets.org: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/jubilate-agno-fragment-b-i-will-consider-my-cat-jeoffry, accessed 19 November, 2018.
- “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” by Wallace Stevens, The Poetry Foundation: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45236/thirteen-ways-of-looking-at-a-blackbird
- “Writing With Lists: Using the Series in Descriptions,” by Richard Nordquist, ThoughtCo, Jun. 14, 2018: https://www.thoughtco.com/writing-with-descriptive-lists-1691860, accessed 19 November, 2018.
- The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life, by Priscilla Long, p. 23. Print.
- ibid, p. 28.
- ibid, pages 29-32.
- ibid, p. 32
- Make a List: How a Simple Practice Can Change Our Lives and Open Our Hearts, Marilyn McEntyre, loc 116, Kindle e-book.
- ibid, loc 95.
- ibid, loc 97.
- “A Note from Ann,” Ann Voskamp: http://onethousandgifts.com/a-letter-from-ann
- Laura Lynn Brown, private correspondence, email.