Lessons on Writing from a Clueless Shopper

by Jonathan Bush

I’m a pretty good teacher of writing, but I’ll freely admit that I am one of the world’s worst grocery shoppers. I am easily distracted. I often have an interest in unique and useless items, and I’m apt to buy things that are often close to what we need, rather than the exact item – Apples? Can’t find them. No problem: I see kumquats (I love kumquats!). And I’m willing to buy in bulk if I see a deal – even if it is of limited value to our family’s upcoming menu. I once came home from a grocery trip with nothing more than a large pack of underwear (on sale!) and a six-pack of (really good!) beer. I still consider it a successful trip.

I truly need close supervision when I shop alone. 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.

I may be biased, but I believe that her shopping list-making skills have 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!).

A careful reader may notice I’m talking a lot about me and how my spouse can influence me. My limitations, my needs, my tasks. I suppose that’s a bit narcissistic. But, and I’m speaking here as a writer — that’s the right thing to do: 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, uncooked 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. Beginning in the far back right of the store, and moving aisle-by-aisle through the labyrinth of cookies, bagels, milk, cereal, and beyond — the list guides me object-by-object through my list. 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 (Wheat bread – you can’t hide from me! Ha!).
  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!” This list is not a home for sentences – not long and flowing, or even shorter. Every phrase or word is precious and meaningful and detailed. They might also include specific details — Not just ‘peanut butter,’ but ‘Jif’ peanut butter – occasionally with additional information – i.e. ‘family size’. This attention to detail also forces me to buy what I should buy, rather than what I might want to buy, like, say, the industrial sized jar of generic peanut butter (So cheap! And almost 75% real!).

Picture of a shopping list with a jar of JIF peanut butter


  1. Through research and knowledge. There is little guesswork in these lists. She’s an authority on the topic, someone whose credibility is not to be trifled with. She knows the layout of our local store in innate detail and, more importantly, knows where everything is – aisle-by-aisle; shelf-by-shelf; counter-by-counter. She also researches: she knows what items are on sale and which ones have coupons attached (which she helpfully marks with an asterisk). (Note: I still miss a few).

These shopping lists, then, far from just being simple notes, encompass and 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.”

And that’s what we refer to as rhetoric – as Aristotle himself defined it: observing and then using the “available means of persuasion” to accomplish a specific goal. Understanding GAP helps us understand Aristotle, and helps us find the “available means of persuasion” in any given situation. As any parent who has ever ventured into a toy store can testify, even children know this: they learn when to change tone or voice to get what they want. As we evolve into adult communicators, we (hopefully) become savvier with our rhetoric. We learn that an effective argument for one audience often falls flat with another. We continue to learn how to communicate with different audiences, in different settings, for different purposes – lovers, co-workers, strangers, friends, family-members, etc. – often with varying success.

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 that the shopping list will be used (mainly balanced on a shopping cart after being rumpled in my jeans). The list must be easy to interpret and read and that things like efficiency and concise language are important, as is organization. Likewise, it needs to be a list, not an essay — with short chunks of text.

Audience (who will be reading it). She knows me well – my foibles, my inabilities, my habits, my need for guidance. Using her knowledge of her audience, she crafts the list in a way that works for me. A list for someone else might need to be different, but this list is tailored for me and what I, as the audience, needs to be successful in using it.

Purpose (what the writer wants to accomplish). She has a goal: this list is meant to accomplish an identifiable task – the successful filling of our pantry and fridge. The effectiveness of her list is easy to assess. If there is fresh and new 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.

So, what’s this have to do with writing? By considering these concepts – implicitly or explicitly – we learn how to adapt a message for particular audiences, purposes, and genres. No matter how humble or common the task, good writers know their audiences and know that effective writing is dependent 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. Asking these questions makes communication a rhetorical act, in which we are thinking critically not just about what we are reading, but also interpreting the author’s motives, goals, and choices, and learning our own rhetorical decisions.

So, next time you see a shopping list – or a billboard, or a flyer, or a pamphlet, or a map, bumper sticker, menu or any other everyday document, ask these questions about them, converse about their rhetoric, and know that you’re looking at a complex mix of genre, audience, and purpose.


Jonathan Bush is a professor of English at Western Michigan University, where he teaches English education and coordinates the developmental writing program. He is also the director of the Third Coast Writing Project.

Peer review logo


Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.

5 thoughts on “Lessons on Writing from a Clueless Shopper

  1. Have you read Witte’s article, Context, Text, and Intertext? It also has a useful and interesting treatment of the shopping list and how it communicates.

  2. Pingback: Popcorn and Peter Elbow: Ways to Help Your Kids with Their Writing | Teachers, Profs, Parents: Writers Who Care

  3. Pingback: Future Teachers Deterred by Standardized Tests: A Michigan Story, A National Problem | Teachers, Profs, Parents: Writers Who Care

  4. Pingback: Writing Lessons from a Shopping List - Literacy & NCTE

  5. Pingback: Writing Lessons from a Shopping List - NCTE

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s