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Use Lists to Power Your Writing

using lists to power your writing

Do you ever use lists to organize your writing, or to stimulate your creativity? (Or, to be totally boring here, to get better organized?) When I was young, I carried around a book with me that was like my writing Bible. It was called Thinking Like a Writer by Lou Willett Stanek. One of the things I loved most about this book was the author’s suggestion to keep lists as a way of stimulating creativity.

I kept a book of lists. On each notebook page was a different title: ugly words, funny words, interesting names, the funniest thing I saw today, the saddest thing I saw today, words to look up, character traits, etc.

These lists helped me to notice more about the world around me. They motivated me to pay attention. When I was reading, I studied the words with more scrutiny. I found humor in billboards and ugly words on menus. (Ham, for example. What about that word is beautiful?)

Keeping lists helped me to think more critically about everyday aspects of life – characters and settings and interactions that I might someday be able to use in a story somewhere. When I visited a new place, I took in its attributes. I asked myself, “What sets this place apart?” and “How would I describe this place?” and “Where could I use snippets of description about this place in my writing?”

Of course, many of the thoughts and notes I kept simply for a future project. I often didn’t have a place to add a specific description or insert an ugly or funny word. But all of this became fodder – resources and threads of possibilities for future creative projects. With each observation I added to a list, there came a gust of possibility, a spark of hope: Where might this word or this description show up in my future writing?

When I opened my journal today – the one I am currently writing in – there was another list, on the first page. I titled the list “Words to Keep,” paying tribute to Minrose Gwin’s painfully beautiful historical fiction book, Promise. In the book, a young girl’s mother gives her a “Word to Keep” from time to time, encouraging her to jot it down and learn it. Why? Because the words are powerful. The Word to Keep might be big. It might contain different meanings. It might evolve as the present transitions into history. The mother knew that the possibilities of what her daughter could do with words were endless – and so giving words to her to keep was an incredible gift.

As writers, we should all have our own Words to Keep. We should have an insatiable hunger to study and use our words well, to grow our vocabulary and examine language from all angles. We should always be curious, asking what words can do – how they can teach, uplift, inspire, illustrate. We should always be asking how words – the words we write – connect us.

A list can be one of the writer’s most important tools. Lists are, after all, collections of words. Keeping lists is a writer’s practice that never gets old. Try it, if you haven’t. And let me know what comes from it.

Do you use lists to stimulate your writing?

2 thoughts on “Use Lists to Power Your Writing”

  1. The closest thing to any kind of pre-writing I do (at least in fiction) is a fuzziliy-formed “shopping list” of scenes I’ll need, which in itself, is edited and added to as the book goes along. Anything more concrete turns into an excuse for procrastination.

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