List Making

People make lists every day to remind them of projects to do, things to buy, errands to run. Most obviously, when you make a list of grocery items, you have a record to consult in the store. Equally important, however, in starting the list is the power of the list itself to generate useful associations and new thoughts: you write eggs and think also about bacon; you write milk and remind yourself of other products in the dairy case. The same thing works with the lists I make in my journal or appointment book to remind myself of what I need to do today, this week, before vacation, etc. By writing the list I remind, remember, and create a visual display of ideas to mull over and modify.

I make lists all the time both to jog my memory and to suggest new possibilities. I make lists when I have a problem to think about, a project to develop, an article to write, or a lecture to prepare. Moreover, I often revise those lists to see what else is possible. For instance, to create a class syllabus, I often start with a list of authors—Twain, James, Crane, Frost, Eliot, Dickinson, Melville—then add, subtract, and rearrange until I like the logic of the course before me. To write this book, I started with a list of three chapters, then later expanded it to twenty, and finally cut it to the sixteen you are now reading.

After I have an idea I like, I often start with another list to see where else that idea could go, what its dimensions are, the pro arguments I can think of, the con, and how many organizational sections the paper might have. Even this list is not exhaustive. I arbitrarily decided to find five examples—the list could just as easily have numbered four or twelve.

Writers and thinkers of all kinds use lists to initiate and continue to develop a piece of writing. Instead of settling for the first idea that pops into mind for that narrative English paper or history research report, write it down and see what other possibilities exist. In this sense, list making is like an abbreviated freewriting exercise or a conceptual map; the same principles are at work.

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