Write a list. (A writing tutorial).
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, take 3-5 minutes to do the exercise yourself right now. It will only make sense if you do it first. You’ll need a notebook and a pen or pencil.
Set a timer.
Set your mind to: Words that start with G.
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.)
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.
// enjoys the sound of imagined pens scratching
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?
Leave a note in the comments and tell me how you do it.
Photo credit (top): Tara McMullen.
Sarah, I love this practice and had forgotten how it frees and opens me. Thank you for reminding me this morning, a morning when magic and flow had been feeling elusive.
Thank you, Shira! Happy this little reminder landed well. :)
Wow. So simple yet so profound. 40 words that start with G in 5 minutes.
It amazes me when I look back to see what my mind does when coming up with those words.
My storytelling mind wanders down other branching paths of words that contain G, end in G, or have a G buried in a phrase or a sentence. I struggle to create this list as just a list of random words that start with G. I feel there is always some connection between the words. My mind keeps making up stories between these G words, and then a story linking them all up. I'll share it here to show you what I mean, if that's okay.
"In the Key of G"
I watch my agile rescue giraffe grow up in my garden. She grinds away at the great gamble of life, turning from innocent green to wise gray. She generates dance moves that gain her a viral TikTok following. I give her a gown to graduate in as she’s gradually scored a perfect grade in my book. She's become a grateful giant full of sky goodness. When she's gone on safari with her GoPro pointed at clouds, I groan like a gecko on a gimbal. I become old as a gummy grandmother with a grand gumball machine, filled with magical eggs. I wiggle and gyrate the familiar geography of the machine to no avail. I grumble about the goggles I have to wear to see the world as it is instead of as I imagine it to be. I want to be that girl giddy on fantasies. I will grind my gorgeous way out of this gorge in time. All I need is a guitar, a goat, my pair of golden gloves, and a strong beat.
This is so much fun, Quenntis!
Thank you Sarah for this reminder of the goodness of writing 'exercises'. I'd plum forgot!
This is my favourite writing exercise, too, and I start nearly every writing session with it.
I love your explanation, too, about meeting language halfway.
Great idea on starting every writing session with this. I never thought about it but it is brilliant!
I’d forgotten how much I like this exercise! Thank you, Sarah!
I sometimes think of an object and write all the words associated with it. I like your idea to do it every time I sit down to write.
Thank you, Sarah
Sushila, I love your technique, too -- to limit your focus to one object. Thank you for sharing!
Seems almost magical. I'll try using this for sure.
I saved this for Monday morning knowing it might be a rough start. What a gentle way to wake up a sleepy brain!
Yes! It's a nice, soft way to get started - and before you know it, you're in flow. :)
I felt led by both the sounds and the senses of the words as they came to me, how each one drew me into the next: "gable gabble gobble giblet gimlet gimbel gamble grumble." I smiled as I wrote these ones down. It's a very good way to start the morning.
Gail, this is a super fun list! These words have such a great energy! What a great way to set your writin mind to delight, first thing.
Genuflect - where did that come from? I'm not even Catholic. Luckily gin was there to balance things out! I really enjoyed the exercise.
This one made me smile a little, it reminded me of an exercise we did in the Story Intensive with writing a list of random words. My favourite moment was when my mind went Gold then Galvanize because I could see the connection between the words and I love making connections. Had fun with this, thank you, Sarah.
Arriving late to class, but better late than never. Enjoyed this exercise more than I expected.
Loved the guidance you gave. "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."
The list came organically despite my mind's efforts to force it. It tried to approach the exercise as if it were a task that needed correct answers. Thankfully, I could wrangle in the mind’s tendencies. Tried painting the words, but got caught up in perfect lettering.
Wrote the list this morning while sitting on my back deck and watching mother nature in action (live next to a forest). Doing it there was grounding.
Each word had significance for me. Not something understood until I reviewed them. Every arrival surprised me, as if produced by magic. Most are from experiences or reference something important to me. The variety of words was fascinating. Tiny aspects of me were popping up and evoking bits of the forgotten self.
You nailed it with these words. “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 helped me better understand where the writing blocks are coming from. I need to let go of some control and accept how my stories unfold while appreciating the unknown.
As someone once said, "become comfortable with being uncomfortable."
Thank you for this. It was an especially useful exercise, without a doubt.
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