Writing Lessons from a Shopping List - National Council of Teachers of English
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Writing Lessons from a Shopping List

The following, excerpted from Jonathan Bush’s “Lessons on Writing from a Clueless Shopper” at Writers Who Care, appeared first 1/7/17.


With 1 day left to the National Day on Writing, we’re sharing a series of reflections from members and professionals who demonstrate why writing is vital to everything we do.


I’m a pretty good teacher of writing, but I am one of the worst grocery shoppers. I often have an interest in unique and useless items, and I’m apt to buy things close to what we need, rather than the exact item.

Luckily, I am married to one of America’s greatest shopping list writers. And, like a good writer does, she uses her writing to solve problems and create solutions. She has produced some of the most rhetorically savvy and smart pieces of writing the world has ever seen (and targeted at one of the worst audiences, too!).

Effective writing is, first and foremost, about audiences: how to interact, teach, and reach those audiences, no matter the situation or context.

How then does my wife effectively use rhetoric to write a shopping list that will help me come home with a can of chicken broth, rather than a whole chicken (they’re pretty much the same thing, right?)?

  1. Through effective organization. All items on the list are written exactly in the order that I will encounter them while I shop. This is genius. Not only does it keep me on track and focused on what we need, but it also provides navigational triangulation. Each item geographically follows the previous item. If I encounter an item two-down on my list and I see that there’s a missing item in between that and the last item I picked up, I know that it is somewhere between those two items. Thus, the hunt begins, with the quarry cornered into a small area of aisle ten – between bagels and hamburger buns.
  2. Through short and focused messaging. The use of words on her lists is minimal. Only one verb is needed – and it’s only implicit – “shop!” Every phrase or word is precious and meaningful and detailed.
  3. Through research and knowledge. There is little guesswork in these lists. She knows the layout of our local store in intimate detail. She knows what items are on sale and which ones have coupons attached (which she helpfully marks with an asterisk).

These shopping lists, then, exemplify some of the core concepts of rhetoric, along with the communication tasks they entail. In many of our classes, we talk about these rhetorical ideas as Genre, Audience, and Purpose, commonly shortened to “GAP.”

This concept of “GAP” can be used to analyze my wife’s shopping list, and why it has been effective with its intended audience. For example:

Genre (the type of writing). My wife understands the context in which the shopping list will be used (mainly balanced on a shopping cart after being rumpled in my jeans). The list must therefore be easy to interpret and read, and things like efficiency and concise language are important, as is organization. Likewise, it needs to be a list, not an essay.

Audience (who will be reading it). Using her knowledge of her audience, she crafts the list in a way that works for me.

Purpose (what the writer wants to accomplish). She has a goal: this list is meant to accomplish an identifiable task. The effectiveness of her list is easy to assess. If there is fresh food in the house, it worked. This is the measure by which all rhetorical writing can be judged – did it cause the action or response the writer was attempting to create? If so, it’s effective writing.

No matter how humble or common the task, good writers know their audiences and know that effective writing depends on the author’s understanding of the entire writing situation – the audience and purpose, and the most appropriate genre to be used. These are also the things teachers value in authentic writing classes, and they present the ideas that can be emphasized by parents or community members who mentor children when they look at any and all types of writing, asking questions such as:

  • Why do you think they wrote that?
  • Who do you think they are writing to?
  • Why did they write that way?

These all provide means for starting this conversation about the complicated and exciting nature of writing and communicating.