writerly lists

muppet show

I always wanted to stab a pair of cutting shears into the throats of people who said, “I’m in love with words.” Or “I’m a lover of language.” Who says that? I wish I could turn people like that into deformed Muppets. Make them share a bed with Beaker.

Despite my aggressive outlook on the subject, I keep a running list of words I like. Because there are some days where the writing just falls out of me–to the point where it doesn’t even feel like it’s me who’s writing it–and other days, most days, where I have to work my way through it. That’s where persistence kicks in, and you just grind it out. That’s where my lists and writing exercises come in.

In place of “She was reading a magazine,” I’d consult my word list and decide, “She leafed through a magazine.” “He pawed his way through his mother’s lingerie catalog.” Plunder. Inchoate. Rife. His relish of. Her sapor. Glut. Ruth. Potters. Solder. Succumb. Bespeak. To be clear, I do not want to marry these words, or even get a room for that matter. Though, I wouldn’t mind buying them a cup of coffee and a Ho Ho.

Then there are sayings, turns of phrase that stand out, things I want to remember. It’s all Jesus. Cowboy up. Hulk out. I have less of these, as you can cull a crapstack of ’em from UrbanDictionary (but if you have to explain what the phrase means when used in context, nix it).

A list of odd character details that somehow immediately explain all you need to know about a person. Like a man who hires someone to install his window screens. Her favorite book is Pretty Little Potholders, by the author of Pretty Little Pincushions. You get who that lady is right away.

A list of oddball observations that don’t make much sense but somehow do, like the way you can drive but don’t really see the road when you’ve just come from a fight. That we’ll watch a movie we’ve seen more than a dozen times, one we even own on DVD, when it’s on TV (with commercials) instead of loading up the DVD, NOT out of laziness but out of a sense of community. TV is less of an isolated activity when you know other people, somewhere, are watching exactly what you are.

I should keep a list of comedic techniques. You could simply watch your favorite comedies and take notes on the technique. A woman role plays with her friend on how she plans to break up with a guy if he asks her to move in without a proposal. She holds her ground, is thoroughly convincing. Next scene: Guy asks her to move in. “Okay, I’ll call the movers.” 

I’m surprised there aren’t books that do exactly this in list form. Are there?



  1. I subscribe to your RSS and rarely come to the actual site and comment, but just wanted to thank you for this. You’ve inspired me. Just created the separate lists on my ipad/phone. Very cool idea.

  2. You once wrote on this site that you also used poetry and music as inspiration for your writing. I obviously love your writing, so I began to do the same, and the people in my writing class saw a marked improvement in my writing. Thanks for being so generous with your knowledge. Most writers are greedy and aren’t as open with their tips and tricks.

  3. Tvtropes.org sounds like it might be what you’re looking for. Hundreds and hundreds of commonly-used phrases, joke set-ups, situations, groupings of personalities for ensemble casts, even fighting techniques. Some are cliches, and some are just variations on a theme. They list TV, comics, film, novel, and real life examples of everything.

    1. Author

      Yes, I’ve seen the site. Thanks for including it, suggesting it, for others. It’s helpful to know all the assumptions a viewer/reader brings in before a word is on the page, so you can turn things on them in a way they hadn’t expected. Or you can go overboard and really play to the cliches.

  4. Great post! Part of me wants to do this, really study the writers that I like and some of their “tricks,” keep lists and try to break it down to a science. But then part of me worries that, with my own particular writing technique, looking at it all that closely might kill the “magic” or whatever you want to call it. Watched pot never boils kind of thing. I probably should try it, even just as an experiment though. Thanks for the ideas!

  5. “East Jesus Nowhere”, “Wackadoodle”, “Oy, with the poodles already!”,these are a few of my favorite phrases.

  6. I have an idea list of all the books I’ll one day write, all the movie scripts I’ll get to. The problem with lists? They don’t do the work for you.

  7. Love love love the way you write. Though I have to admit, it’s not for your verb choice. It’s because you’re funny but you always include some depth to what you write. You make me think. When’s the next book?!!

  8. My favorite word is apotheosis. It just flows. Unfortunately, I rarely get the chance to use it. I have a list of the different words for what groups of animal species are called: most disturbing is a “murder of crows”; my favorite is a “clutter of cats”; prettiest is an “exhaltation of larks.”

  9. I’ve long declared myself a “word nerd” and none have yet come at me with the scissors.

    Enamored by your use of “cutting shears.”

  10. Who says that? Writers often say that. I say that. I make my living telling stories. I read the dictionary for fun and have done so since I was old enough to read. I subscribe to some sort of “Word A Day” and I love to play Scrabble. I read my favorite authors over and over just for the cadence. My friends and family have laughed at my penchant for language. There are worse hobbies.

  11. Just last night we were sitting on the deck, sipping a glass of wine when my dad burst forth with this treasure:

    Master of All Masters

    A girl once went to the fair to hire herself for servant. At last a funny-looking old gentleman engaged her and took her home to his house. When she got there he told her that he had something to teach her, for that in his house he had his own names for things.

    He said to her, “What will you call me?”

    “Master or mister, or whatever you please, sir,” says she.

    He said, “You must call me master of all masters. And what would you call this?” pointing to his bed.

    “Bed or couch, or whatever you please, sir.”

    “No, that’s my barnacle. And what do you call these?” said he, pointing to his pantaloons.

    “Breeches or trousers, or whatever you please, sir.”

    “You must call them squibs and crackers. And what would you call her?” pointing to the cat.

    “Cat or kit, or whatever you please, sir.”

    “You must call her white-faced simminy. And this now,” showing the fire, “what would you call this?”

    “Fire or flame, or whatever you please, sir.”

    “You must call it hot cockalorum, and what this?” he went on, pointing to the water.

    “Water or wet, or whatever you please, sir.”

    “No, pondalorum is its name. And what do you call all this?” asked he as he pointed to the house.

    “House or cottage, or whatever you please, sir.”

    “You must call it high topper mountain.”

    That very night the servant woke her master up in a fright and said, “Master of all masters, get out of your barnacle and put on your squibs and crackers. For white-faced simminy has got a spark of hot cockalorum on its tail, and unless you get some pondalorum, high topper mountain will be all on hot cockalorum.”

    That’s all.

  12. I do the words I like list too. But I am having a hard time with it technically.
    I started it at work on a word doc.
    But it was at work, so at home I started a separate one on a notepad doc.
    But then of course that wasn’t helpful when I wasn’t at my computer. So I started making notes of them in my sketchbook, which is usually in my car.
    But then I would fill up the sketchbook and it would be relegated to a drawer.
    And what about the ones that happen in a party or dinner or a movie, or where ever I am without a sketchbook.
    I need centralization really badly.

    1. Author

      Evernote : It’s where I keep my lists, can access them anywhere. INCLUDING the car, at a red light, I’ll pull up the voice memo option and say my idea/ word, whatever

  13. I thought of “King of the Hill”‘s Peggy Hill, with her musings stored first on her Kaypro computer and then her iMac.

  14. Loved every single description of a person in your books. You’re right, you always use telling details. Though, sometimes (don’t hate me), you use too many. Sometimes it’s too much of a good thing. More is just more.

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