How Can Lists Help You Write?

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Last weekend I was in Bradenton Florida at the Florida Writer Association‘s Conference for writers, authors, and readers. In between selling my novels, I attended a class taught by Patricia Charpentier. Patricia taught a fun class about how to write using lists, and she allowed me to share her tips with you. I hope you find it as valuable as I have.

Patricia Charpentier, author of the multi-award winning book, Eating an Elephant: Write Your Life One Bite at a Time, teaches, writes, edits, ghostwrites, and publishes personal and family history. She’s a popular speaker and offers workshops and ongoing courses, including the Bring Your Ancestors to Life Program that utilized audio/video modules, one-on-one coaching, group Q & A calls, and more to help you succeed in writing your family history story. Patricia has edited and published more than thirty family histories and also serves as artist in residence at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Orlando. Visit her at

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 Have you ever sat down to write a story and stared at the blank screen or a sheet of paper and felt totally intimidated? I have. I’m sure many of you have too.

On the flip side, have you ever felt intimated about scribbling your grocery list on a sheet of paper? Probably not. My guess is that you don’t have any problem scratching down your goals for the day or your honey-do list either, do you?

Who doesn’t know how to write a list? 

We makes lists for groceries, to-do, honey-do, goals, and reminders. I’m sure you can think of others too.

Bloggers, journalists, and news media use lists in their articles all the time. Here are a few examples:

  • Top 10 Tweets
  • Amazon’s Top 100 Bestsellers
  • 10 Best Strategies to Market Your Book
  • Five Best Start-Up Companies

Lists are important. People use them every day. So why not use them to write your life story, book, or novel?


  1. They’re easy to write. You don’t have to be a great writer. Anyone can make a list.
  2. They can light your memory or your ideas on fire. You put one thing down that’ll lead to something else. You don’t have to worry about using flowery prose or if you’ve included the five senses, or repeated the same word three times. Editing and adding texture can come later.
  3. You learn something about yourself, your characters, or your story, maybe something that surprises you.
  4. It doesn’t take a lot of time and might be a great quick way to flesh out your plot points. (Think how quickly you’re able to write your grocery list.)
  5. There are no wrong answers or wrong words. Lists give you the freedom to be free-flowing with your thoughts, from your head to your fingertips, to the page.
  6. You can do it anywhere–on your iPhone, a scrap of paper, an envelope, in EVERNOTE, or while sitting in your car, at the doctor’s office, or while sipping coffee.
  7. Lists are easy and quick to complete, giving you that great feeling of closure, like you’ve accomplished something. Whereas, writing the entire book can seem intimidating and take forever.
  8. You can plot or review a lot about you or your story in a small space so it’ll be easier to sort through later.
  9. It’s fun.
  10. 10. It’s a great starting point when you sit to write for the day. You can jump into the story and go, and maybe it’ll help you flesh out the order of your story.


Although Patricia teaches how to write your life story using this technique, I think her tips can help novelists and nonfiction book authors too. Incorporate these tips in your daily list writing.

  1. Make a list of chapter topics. Keep running lists of what you want your chapters to be about. If you’re not sure and need ideas, look over your lists. They might spark something more.
  2. Set a time limit when you sit down to write. Even if you only have 10-15 minutes you can cram a lot of ideas for one draft.
  3. Reject nothing.
  4. Write like a maniac – use good use of your time, get out of control, write fast and don’t stop. Sometimes your subconscious takes over and slips you a nugget.
  5. When you’re writing your first draft of your lists don’t worry about duplicating words, you’ll edit that later. Go with whatever pops in your head.
  6. Let each list sit for a while–one day or more. Maybe you want to write a list for the entire book before you go back to the beginning. That will give you plenty of time to see your lists, your order of the story, with fresh eyes.
  7. Then edit the list. Eliminate duplicates, expand certain lists, decide the order and arrangement or rearrangement, check spelling, grammar, punctuation, and typos.
  8. Then write that novel, or life story. It’ll all be there for you.


  • When you’re writing your lists keep your nouns specific. If you’re talking about a flower (general) list the specific (gardenia) instead. If you’re discussing a dog, include which breed.
  • Be informative, giving value to the reader. Make sure that the information you share is necessary in moving the story forward.
  • Use adjectives sparingly. Use strong active verbs because they’re more powerful and help the reader feel emotion.
  • Size- sometimes the length of your list implies something, communicates something. If it’s long then maybe it implies abundance. If it’s a short list maybe it’s painful or not needed. Pay attention and interpret.

Now it’s YOUR TURN

Try this Exercise:

Make a list of all the things that were under your bed as a child. Set the timer for five minutes. Allow your brain to relax and remember. Go back in time.

Here’s my list:

dust balls, dog hair, a sock, my brother, gum wrapper, tiled floor, suitcase, stories on paper, slippers, part of my comforter, a shoe, dog toy

If I were to go back and write a paragraph about this I could get more specific.

For instance, my list might be: Paul, my brother, my blue Samonsite suitcase, a balled-up red sock, Bosko, my dog, furry bunny slippers, a red Trident gum wrapper

I might change this into a sentence.

I peeked under my bed, hoping to find where the stench was coming from. Beside the Trident gum wrapper, my Samsonite suitcase, and my pink bunny slippers crouched Paul, my brother, in a dirty diaper.

Have you tried using lists to write your stories?

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  1. Love this post and love lists!! I’ve been writing them for years, and they have always been and still are a RED-HOT service seller with editors. Happy weekend!

    • I want to teach this to my little 10-year-olds in February. Have to teach a GT class. Eek! It should be fun though, right?

  2. As always, great tips and for me timely as I’m just starting a new book! I’m a great list maker, just never thought of applying that to writing my books!

    • Pat – You did? Is it Romantic Suspense again? Can’t wait to read your debut one. So fun! Let me know how this list thing works out for you. I want to know!

  3. Happy New Year, Michelle. Great post. These are great tips. I had never given the aforementioned much thought. Copy, paste, that’s what I’m doing now. Again, thanks. You always seem to know when we are in desperate need of help. I’m currently working on a film, therefore have not finished my last novella. Hope to get cracking soon. This list will be of much help. Blessings.

    • Hi Johnny! Happy New Year! You’re working on a film? That sounds like a blast. I’d love to do that some day.
      Thanks for stopping by. Let me know how the list works for you!

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