The Art of Writing Lists in Your Writing

June 12, 2018

Whether writing fiction or nonfiction, writers often include lists (sometimes called series) in their sentences to either show off the depth of their knowledge or as a way to offer details.

Mystery writers offer details of the crime scene. Nonfiction writers show colorful details or offer broad landscape descriptions. Your challenge as a writer is to make sure your list shows the reader enough to see the scene, feel the atmosphere, understand the experience.

Here are some tips to help you do that.

  • Use active verbs. Wherever possible, replace is, was, were, are, have, had, etc. (forms of “to be”) with active verbs. Example of a sentence with a passive verb: There were five cranes, two pheasants, and three wild turkeys in the field. Example of the same information written with active verbs: Five cranes watched the two pheasants pecking the ground while three wild turkeys scurried across the field. You decide which is more visual for the reader.
  • Consider limiting your list to three items. Example: She took a deep breath as she shook off memories while sorting her mother’s china, crystal, and silverware after the funeral.
  • Omit the word and in your list. And indicates the list is complete. Omitting and before the last item in your list implies the list represents a sample, not the entire list.
  • Help reader understand when a long list is meant to be long because it includes everything. How do you do this? Start the list sentence with an opening statement followed by a colon (:). Then separate each item in the list with either a comma (when the items are simple) or a semicolon (when the items are complex or contain a comma within the item itself).
  • Avoid overwhelming your reader with your vast knowledge of things that belong together or long descriptions of things contained in your list. Both you and your reader are better served if your lists contain things unexpected, visual, well-selected from your knowledge inventory.

I hope these few tips help you write lists (series) that not only show your understanding of a subject, but also create visuals your reader can see and relate to. Happy writing!