What’s In Your Notebook? The Value of Lists for Writers

Let’s talk about making lists.

I don’t know what I like more about Patricia Morrisroe’s “More Than Enough Hours in Every Day”: the author’s mother-in-law’s red spiral notebook filled with book lists, or the thought that I might need less sleep as I age and will have more time to do all the things I want to do.

I have a friend who keeps a similar book list, not only of books she’s read (and when she read them and what she thought of them), but also books she wants to read. It’s the kind of task that might seem pesky in the moment, especially for people who aren’t natural list-makers or who feel they have precious little time to read books much less record them, but it can be very satisfying over time, like adding one penny at a time to a gallon jar.

Even in the short term, such a project might give us more satisfaction than we might expect. Tyler Cowen in his book Create Your Own Economy suggests we can get pleasure from “mental-ordering,” perhaps especially in our modern world of information overload. I’ve never thought of myself as very good at organization in general, but reading his book helped me to understand why I get an inherent joy from the work I do as a freelance book indexer. Starting with another’s book manuscript, and pulling and creating order from it so that readers can find what they are looking for or curious about is the ultimate organization word game.

“List not only what we want or need to do (which can become a source of anxiety and pressure) but what we have done (a source of accomplishment).”Since reading Cowen’s book, I have looked for ways to re-create that pleasure in other areas of my life, such as sometimes planning weekly menus rather than cooking whatever I can make with what is in the refrigerator, or putting together a calendar of writing tasks. But I think that the Red Spiral Notebook is another source of pleasure that we often overlook: Listing not what we want or need to do (which can become a source of anxiety and pressure), but listing what we have done (a source of accomplishment).

Morrisroe writes of her mother-in-law:

“Having worked her way up through James Joyce’s shorter works — next to Darcy, she’s crazy about Stephen Dedalus — she has recently embarked on ‘Ulysses.’ ‘Since all the action takes place over the course of one day, I do think it probably should be a little shorter,’ she says. ‘One thousand pages for 24 hours? What’s Bloom doing that’s so interesting?’ At the moment, she has only reached page 12, because she’s determined to look up and record every unfamiliar word in a separate yellow notebook. Two pages are already filled up.”

I was reminded of the value of lists recently on my visit to our family farm. My step-mother is a list maker extraordinaire. She is one of the most productive, wonderfully busy people I know. In the kitchen, next to her most-used counter, is a large piece of paper with several small, practical lists filling every corner, such as these:


  • east side of house
  • front yard
  • back yard


  • bathrooms
  • kitchen
  • front steps

Today I’m going to think more about the role of lists in my writing.

What kinds of lists do you keep for your writing?
Do you ever make lists of what you have already accomplished?
Let’s share ideas of what works!

See Also

10 Reasons Why We Love Making Lists (from NPR)

40 Great Resources for Making Lists (a Mashable guide)

Making Your List, Checking It Twice (from Psychology Today)

Tyler Cowen on Umberto Eco on Lists (from Cowen’s blog Marginal Revolution)

A Lists Art Exhibit (from the Smithsonian Archives of American Art)

Post updated July 9, 2014.
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