How Lists Inform Our Writing, Our World

list making

Earlier this week, at this site, I featured a post by Cyndy Etler on how list-making can help you manage the overwhelming process of trying to write a memoir, or any story about your life.

The universe is working serendipitously this week, because Yelizaveta P. Renfro just published a piece over at Glimmer Train on the magic of list making. She says:

A novel I’m working on began two and a half years ago as an eighty-four-word list divided into nineteen “items” that became chapters…. Slowly, each of the nineteen items expanded into its own list, a nesting-doll regression to smaller and smaller units, to scenes and paragraphs and sentences, until each word was in place.

Related (and nearly a decade ago), I learned about an important productivity method—perhaps the most important I’ve ever learned—and it boils down to this: Never create a to-do item that is actually a project. Instead, use to-dos that are specific action steps. In other words, you would never have the following to-do items:

  • Buy a house
  • Write my first novel
  • Build a website

Instead, you would break these enormous projects into the smallest possible components, starting with to-do items such as:

  • Research real estate agents in my area and create a list of candidates to contact
  • Visit the library and see what books are available on novel writing for beginners
  • Visit writers’ websites that I like and make notes on what I want my site to do and look like

Breaking large projects down into small steps (into lists!) makes them less intimidating, and—most importantly—helps you make progress with less anxiety. As Anne Lamott says, you tackle things “bird by bird.”

Also this month in Glimmer Train:

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