The Use of Listing in Composition

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In composition, listing is a discovery (or prewriting) strategy in which the writer develops a list of words and phrases, images and ideas. The list may be ordered or unordered.

Listing can help overcome writer's block and lead to the discovery, focusing, and development of a topic.

In developing a list, observes Ronald T. Kellogg, "[s]pecific relations to previous or subsequent ideas may or may not be noted. The order in which the ideas are placed in the list can reflect, sometimes after several attempts to build the list, the order needed for the text" (The Psychology of Writing, 1994).

How to Use Listing

"Listing is probably the simplest prewriting strategy and is usually the first method writers use to generate ideas. Listing means exactly what the name implies—listing your ideas and experiences. First set a time limit for this activity; 5-10 minutes is more than enough. Then write down as many ideas as you can without stopping to analyze any of them. . . .

"After you have generated your list of topics, review the list and pick one item that you might like to write about. Now you're ready for the next listing; this time, create a topic-specific list in which you write down as many ideas as you can about the one topic you have selected. This list will help you look for a focus for your...paragraph. Don't stop to analyze any of the ideas. Your goal is to free your mind, so don't worry if you feel you're rambling."(Luis Nazario, Deborah Borchers, and William Lewis, Bridges to Better Writing. Wadsworth, 2010)


"Like brainstorming, listing involves the unmonitored generation of words, phrases, and ideas. Listing offers another way of producing concepts and sources for further thought, exploration, and speculation. Listing is distinct from freewriting and brainstorming in that students generate only words and phrases, which can be classified and organized, if only in a sketchy way. Consider the case of a postsecondary academic ESL writing course in which students are first asked to develop a topic related to modern college life and then to compose a letter or editorial piece on the subject. One of the broad topics that emerged in freewriting and brainstorming sessions was 'The Benefits and Challenges of Being a College Student.' This simple stimulus generated the following list:



living away from home

freedom to come and go

learning responsibility

new friends


financial and social responsibilities

paying bills

managing time

making new friends

practicing good study habits

The items in this preliminary list overlap considerably. Nonetheless, such a list can offer students concrete ideas for narrowing a broad topic to a manageable scope and for selecting a meaningful direction for their writing." (Dana Ferris and John Hedgcock, Teaching ESL Composition: Purpose, Process, and Practice, 2nd ed.Lawrence Erlbaum, 2005)

An Observation Chart

"A type of list that seems especially appropriate for poetry writing instruction is the 'observation chart,' in which the writer makes five columns (one for each of the five senses) and lists all the sensory images associated with the topic. Composition instructor Ed Reynolds [in Confidence in Writing, 1991] writes: 'Its columns force you to pay attention to all of your senses, so it can help you do a more thorough, specific observation. We are accustomed to relying on our sight, but smells, tastes, sounds, and touch can sometimes give us more important information about a subject.'" (Tom C. Hunley, Teaching Poetry Writing: A Five-Canon Approach. Multilingual Matters, 2007)

Pre-Writing Strategies

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Nordquist, Richard. "The Use of Listing in Composition." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). The Use of Listing in Composition. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "The Use of Listing in Composition." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 6, 2023).