List as Composition

Understanding lists as compositions can help students better understand the shaping process we engage as we compose. I recommend doing exercises of this sort as you’re discussing effective paragraph usage. It can be grouped with Says/Does exercises, which demonstrate that most paragraphs either say or do only one thing. Use it to demonstrate that each paragraph typically answers a question relating to either purpose (does) or content (says).

As Ann E Berthoff explains in The Making of Meaning, every list we make is a composition, because every list is a collection of items that answers at least one question. In other words, there’s a relationship between the items in the list, even if they appear random. Sometimes, a list answers one big question with several smaller questions embedded. For example, consider the following grocery list:

butter, bread, peanut butter, broccoli, zucchini, canned tomatoes, vegetable broth, carrots, celery, chicken breasts, cabbage, spinach, toothpaste

While the main question this list answers is obvious (“What items do I need from the grocery store?”) it also answers three smaller questions: 1. What ingredients do I need to make vegetable soup? (broccoli, zucchini, canned tomatoes, carrots, celery, vegetable broth) 2. What toiletries have I run out of? (toothpaste) and 3. What grocery staples have I run out of? (butter, bread, peanut butter)

To turn a list you wrote into a composition, merely reconstruct the thoughts you were having when you wrote it. For example: 

“Tonight, I want to make my mom’s vegetable soup. For that, I’ll need to buy all the usual vegetables, except for onions, which I already have. I’ll also need to pick up a box of vegetable broth. We’re nearly out of the butter, bread, and peanut butter we use for lunches, so I should add those to the list as well. Oh, and we’re almost out of toothpaste. The grocery store sells a different brand than we usually buy, but I don’t want to make a separate trip to the pharmacy.” 

This written paragraph is a reconstruction of the interior monologue I had while writing this list. Berthoff believes that learning to pay attention to and record your thought processes is a shortcut for learning how to write.

To turn a list that someone else wrote into a composition, figure out what questions the list answers. Imagine the thoughts the writer had as they wrote the list.