This Is Not a List

Numbered lists have become very popular on social media. I see loads of lists about writing every day. 7 Writing Mistakes Only Amateurs Make. 15 Ways NOT to Start Your Book. 1 Bazillion Ways to Say What You Would Say a Different Way. Do you know what the numbered list reminds me of?

A fence.

Why stop at the edge of the pasture if your heart has designs for the entire field? (photo courtesy Andreas Krappweis)

Why stop at the edge of the pasture if your heart has designs for the entire field?
(photo courtesy Andreas Krappweis)

The numbers or bullets are posts driven deeply into the squishy, fertile ground of our talent and well-meaning (your ever-lovin’ soul, man!). The skinny strings of text that lead from 1, then 2, then 3, are the wires that keep us in. Sometimes those wires hum with electricity. Sometimes they’re merely barbed. Sometimes the wires are even broken, but we refuse to pass them anyway.

And writers. Of ALL people! Why do we succumb to the list? WE who love the written WORD?! Sure, some of us multiclass (Cory, your geek is showing) as number people. But we’re not accountants (well, maybe that’s your day job). We write to show a greater truth–a whole. The list is a box of corn flakes (you’d be getting better nutrition if you ate the box). The paragraph, the whole, is your dinner plate representing as a color wheel, varied, satisfying, true, constructive and non-damaging.

Lists have regularly been the bully, waiting at the corner to kick my novel in the shins while simultaneously delivering a wedgie and synchronized wet willies, stripping it of its dignity, milk money, and morale.

But it doesn’t take long to figure out where that bully is always waiting (lists, fortunately, are often labeled as such). On occasions when it becomes absolutely necessary to cross paths with the bully list, you can be ready. Wrap your fists in tape, rehearse the perfect clever line, hide your money in your shoe, and get ready to take on Goliath. Because, once you’ve stripped the bully list of its power, you can actually use it to some advantage.

Lists can be helpful to show us where weakness hides. While lists have made me cripplingly, indigestionally, never-going-to-write-another-line-ly sensitive about my prologue, block of description, first-person narration, use of adverbs, etc., the same lists have also motivated me to research these things, determine why they work in the popular fiction in which I see them used, assess my original need for them in my own story, and learn how to use them better.

And you know what?

This research has built my confidence in what I’ve written–confidence in the way I’ve bent the rules and utilized these offences.

If you learn nothing else from your fascination with these lists–these fences–please learn that there is always a way over, through, or around. Let a fence arouse your creativity, not contain you.


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