Write a list. (A writing tutorial.)

writing desk

If you receive my daily prompts, sooner or later you'll notice that I love asking you to write lists. Sometimes they're extremely simple, like:

Write a list of words that begin with the letter G.

Why do I love this simple, powerful writing exercise more than any other? It's pure. It's forgiving. And it is writing practice, distilled. Let me explain.

But before I do, please take 3-5 minutes to do the exercise yourself right now. My explanation will only make sense if you do this first. You'll need a notebook and a pen or pencil.

 

Instructions:

  1. Start a timer or put your watch on the table in front of you.

  2. Set your mind to: Words that start with G.

  3. Watch your mind. Wait for a word to rise up and meet you on the page. Let the words come to you however they like. Write them down as they come to you.

When I teach workshops in person, I hand out small paintbrushes and cups of black paint and I instruct writers to paint the letters slowly. I tell them to imagine that each letter of every word is a small piece of art. If you happen to have a paintbrush and a set of paints around, then by all means try this three-step exercise with paint.

But remember: nothing fancy required. You're just writing words down on a page, in no order, for no reason, other than to write them down.

I'll pause here and wait until you've done the exercise.


Finished? Okay! Now, please consider the following:

  • Were there some words that seemed to come easily, as if they were already in the front of your mind?

  • Did you occasionally go blank? At times, were there no words you could possibly think of that started with the letter G?

  • Did you ever feel like you were floating, ungrounded, or unprepared?

  • Did you find yourself attempting to systematically create words? For instance, did you go through the alphabet in your mind to create words (Ga… Ge… Gi… Go…)? Or did you look around the room for objects and clues, to see if you could find any "G" words around you?

  • Did any words ever pop into your mind by surprise, without you having to think them up, first?

  • When words appeared in your mind and you wrote them down, how did that feel, compared to when you tried to think them up systematically?

  • Bonus question. If you had the experience of watching your mind and having a word appear: where did that word come from?


This exercise is my favourite way to start any writing session. It grounds me, brings me back to the realm of language, and reminds me how it feels to be writing a scene.

But because a list of words has no narrative, there's not as much resistance or anxiety. There's very little at stake when you write a list.

When you write a list of words, you get to experience dropping into the zone of language and images without much risk. You don't have to worry about sentences, characters, or stories. You don't even have to make sense. There's very little for your inner critic to criticize.

The best part is, you still get to feel what it feels like to make magic. You get to feel yourself doing what you love, what you do best.

One moment you don't have anything, and then in the next moment, there's a word right in front of you. You write it down. Your work is not to think it up – your work is to receive it, and to write it down accurately.

This is the essence of writing practice.

Trying to think your writing into being feels different than meeting language and image halfway. Meeting an image halfway involves a lot of release, a lot of let go.

It's not easy to let go. And resistance often gets in our way before we get to that point. So practice, with a list. Warming up with a list of words before you start writing is like warming up before a workout. You're preparing for a session that requires strength and exertion. You're getting your body used to the feeling of the exercise. You're preventing injury by making your muscles softer, more elastic.

More good news: this exercise never gets dull. Do it often!

Pay attention. How do you feel before, during and after writing your list? Know your mind in all of its forms – blank, searching, logical, receptive. It's all going to come up for you when you're writing anyway, so it behooves you to become familiar with it, so you don't give up when the inevitable blankness comes in the middle of your story.

I learned this exercise from Bret Anthony Johnston, and I can honestly say that it changed everything. That's why I give lists as so many of my daily prompts. You can start your writing sessions this way every day. What you’re doing: scanning your mind for words without needing any of them to make sense or tell a great story. They’re simply words, that’s all. Don’t think too much about it – just watch your mind for a word, and then write it down.

Where do the words come from? It’s magic. You’re creating something out of nothing.

Have you been writing lists of words as a part of your practice? Has it provided any insight or relief?

Please let me know in the comments below.

xo,

Sarah Selecky

In the Spotlight: Kristin Offiler
When the writer is ready, the workshop appears.

11 comments

I am dabbling in writing - mostly blogging (sporadically) on my two websites about photography and travel. I want to set and stick to more of a routine, and this might just be the way to do it! Thanks for this tip. I felt all the things you listed.
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Peggy Dallmann

I like your list exercises. When I find myself unable to come up with a word, I write the first letter down. So, today, when I wrote a "g," it wasn't long before I came up with the rest of a word. Just the act of writing the "g" enabled the magic. I love the sounds of certain words, and I used to make lists of words I thought sounded unusual, beautiful, horrible or repugnant, etc. I never considered using this sort of list-making as an exercise to loosen myself up for writing. I used to keep separate journals just for these lists, but got out of the habit several years ago. I don't know why I even started doing it in the first place! I will start list-making again to warm up for my writing time.
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I hadn't tried writing lists before. The thing that I noticed about my list of 'g' words: they fell into distinct categories. Certain words were beautiful, like glory and gentle. Others were descriptive, like gritty and grizzled. Some evoked ugliness, like grifter, grenade, and grovel. The words tumbled out in no consistent order, but I saw connections.
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Mary Nicholson

I love this exercise. It is my go-to when I need to get "in the zone". I tend to close my eyes, and point my finger at my keyboard or the page in a book, and whatever letter it lands on...that is where I start.
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Sarah Selecky

Fantastic, Julie! The list exercise also works when you write a list of names, or a list of cities you've visited, or a list of desserts you've baked, etc. It's endless, really.
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Sarah Selecky

You're a listie! Your comment made me think of The Pillow Book, of course. Lists are beautiful on their own, I agree wholeheartedly. I hope that seeing them this way - as a warm up for writing - brings you even more list love.
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Sarah Selecky

So interesting, Cathy. Try it with other letters -- P, and S, and O come to mind -- what can each new letter bring to the exercise? I love the way you describe your G words.
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Sarah Selecky

Mary, this is my go-to when I need to get into flow, too. I love how you pick your letters. I think I have trouble coming up with new ones (I cycle through 5-7 letters and have been for years). I might make a little jar of letters on paper and pick one each morning, so I have some of that randomness again.
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Prompt: Make a List | PRISM international

[…] List making is one of the reasons I love Sarah Selecky‘s daily writing prompts. (I might have praised her in an earlier post, but it bears repeating.) It seems at least once a week she posts a prompt that revolves around the act of making a list, one that you might spend about 10 minutes writing. She explains her love of list making here. […]
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Thanh G. Clarke

I've used the exercise as a great way to think out loud without having to worry about half-formed ideas, random tangents, private stuff, and all the other things in our heads that we often filter out before ever voicing them or writing about them. It's a daily brain dump. Over time, I've found that it's also very helpful as a tool to get thoughts going that have become stuck, or to help get to the bottom of a rotten mood.
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Wonderful exercise. Thank you so much. The words that appear felt like they came from my core being and it all happened so effortlessly and without the struggle that I sometimes experience. A beautiful little piece of helpful genius! xx
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