List your way to better writing

For many years, I warned my students about listing: “Don’t list. No one wants to read a list.”

I was trying to warn them about just listing a series of events connected by “and then” statements. But instead, I gave them a message that is completely untrue. Lists – particularly lists of specific nouns – can make writing very powerful. And everyone can list, especially when the topic is food.

My all-time favorite list comes from Cynthia Rylant’s Newbery-Award winning book Missing May. On the last page of the first chapter, Summer, a young girl who must go live with her Aunt May and Uncle Ob, goes into the kitchen of her new home and opens the cabinets:

I saw Oreos and Ruffles and big bags of Snickers. Those little cardboard boxes of juice that I had always, just once, wanted to try. I saw fat bags of marshmallows and cans of SpaghettiOs and a little plastic bear full of honey. There were real glass bottles of Coke looking cold as ice in the refrigerator and a great big half of a watermelon taking up space. And, best of all, a carton of real chocolate milk that said Hershey’s.

While reading this book aloud one year to my fifth graders, one of my students yelled out: “That’s a list! You said not to list!” And indeed it is a list. And now I tell students to go ahead and list if it makes their writing stronger. My new rule is: List Well.

I recently finished the novel Love Warps the Mind a Little by John Dufresne. Dufresne reminds me so much of Rylant in a section of the book where Laf and his girlfriend Judi start talking about the food of their childhoods after Laf buys Turkish taffy at a convenience store:

Probably it was the Turkish taffy that got us started on food. Judi remembered how good Sky Bars were before they changed the flavors. Pretty soon we were talking about food we liked as kids, and then we decided to open a restaruant for people who were feeling a little sick or depressed. We’d call it the Milk Mustache. We’d have a special salon for those with mild headaches or hurts-all-over. We’d have couches with afghans. Here you’d drink pale dry ginger ale, nibble on Saltines, and read comic books.

Our menu: fried baloney with cheese, spaghetti with butter and ketchup, mayonnaise sandwiches. Stuff like that. You know, Fluffernutters, grilled cheese sandwiches, tuna noodle casserole with a top layer of potato chips, shepherd’s pie, baked beans with salt pork and molasses, brown bread from the can. For dessert: Creamsicles, peanut butter cups, Devil Dogs, s’mores, strawberry shortcake with bananas, gingerbread, and maple syrup apple pie. You could bring your cat or dog to the Milk Mustache. We’d have a radio going that just played snowstorm warnings and no-school announcements.

I have had great success in helping students who are unsure what to write about by merely suggesting they make a list: “What foods do you like? Make a list of your favorites. Maybe then you will remember something you can write about…”

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