7 Reasons Lists Suck — and 3 Takeaways That Will Make You A Better Writer
We all know what listicles (or list-based articles) are. They’re easily digestible pieces of content that organize information into a numbered or bulleted list. Think the New York Times’ Simple Rules for Healthy Eating, The New Yorker’s Ten Paragraphs About Lists You Have to Read Right Now, or Buzzfeed’s The 29 Most Canadian Things To Ever Canada In Canada.
Listicles like these are incredibly popular, and the reasons behind this are simple. First, they’re often short and simple, which is good for readers who are strapped for time. Second, they provide a clear structure for the reader so they know exactly what they’re in for. And third, they provide a brief overview of an issue, which leaves the reader feeling informed.
When it comes down to it, listicles promise a lot to readers, but they don’t always deliver. Instead of being digestible, interesting content pieces, they can end up shallow and frustrating. So, in the spirit of a medium we at times both love and shun, here are seven reasons lists suck — and a few lessons we can learn from them to make better content.
- They don’t teach you how to write well
It’s easy to write 75 words about an idea, but this is a different skill than traditional article-writing. Whether you’re penning an expository essay or a persuasive one, being able to link ideas and develop a narrative throughout a piece is very useful. Where listicles are concerned, you can usually throw transitions and connections out the window. As a result, it’s more difficult to make your final product nuanced.
- They promote bad reading habits
The sins of the writer are visited on the reader. Because lists are written to be easily skimmed, readers do just that. As readers become accustomed to this style of reading, they might apply this to other content that requires a more careful eye. Valuable content often requires the reader to put real effort in, and if they’re no longer willing to do so, they’re going to miss out on critical information.
- They provide surface over substance
As mentioned in the introduction, listicles tend to simplify topics — sometimes to a point where they’re no longer valuable. A complex topic requires better explanation than short snippets can provide. Even more often, listicles are about topics that are pure entertainment (like 17 Signs You’re Actually the Grinch). That’s not to say that I don’t love and find the humour in many lists, but it does explain why they’ve earned a reputation for being less serious.
- They all sound alike
Go to Google and type in “6 Design Tips…” or “Top Date Ideas…”. Your page will be flooded with similar titles from various publishers. While these standard titles are valuable in that they tell the audience exactly what they’re going to be reading and how long it will take, they end up looking repetitive and uninspired. To stand out among the crowd, you need to do something different.
- They’re often clickbait
You won’t believe number 5! Articles that ‘bait’ a reader to click on them tend to use titles that are sensational, provocative, and unspecific. The reader then needs to click through to the article to get the full story. Often these headlines are used by advertisers trying to drive clicks, and while they can be crafted in a creative way, most often they end up looking cheap.
- They generate one-off traffic
Listicles are meant to go viral; that’s why advertisers love them. What they don’t do is build a consistent audience for your website. People clicking on a listicle are interested in its content specifically, and will likely leave your site as soon as they’ve finished — unless listicles are what you’re known for, à la Buzzfeed.
- They affect your reputation
Sure, lists can be written in nuanced and thoughtful ways. But if you write them poorly, this might devalue your more serious, in-depth content. And if your readers no longer see you as a serious, authoritative source, it’s really tough to win back their favour.
What we can learn from this
There’s a reason why listicles are popular. To avoid their mistakes while capitalizing on their successes, here are a few pieces of advice.
- Create easy-to-consume content
Lists succeed because they’re snackable. In a post-Twitter world, readers want to very quickly be able to decide whether they want to read an article. That doesn’t mean, however, that you have to do this in 140 characters or less.
Start by including subheadings in your article. People scan web pages rather than read them in detail, so lean into this. Subheadings also break up the reading experience, acting as a sort of road map for your argument.
Use shorter paragraphs to let your copy breathe on the page, while keeping the denser material at the beginning of the post and gradually reducing the importance and size of the paragraphs as you continue. This inverted pyramid lets readers understand the heart of what you’re saying before clicking away.
Finally, bold important concepts within the text that you want to highlight. This ensures that your most important points will attract a reader’s eye, making them more likely to be absorbed.
- Let readers know how long it will take
Because listicles are often numbered, readers know upfront approximately how much time and energy they’re about to expend on an article. This is useful for audience members with short attention spans or who are strapped for time. For example, if I’m reading a story on my morning commute and its title indicates that it will only take me a few minutes, I’m more likely to actually read it.
Writers can use headlines to suggest how long an article will take to read without resorting to generic list-based options. Use words like “checklist”, “guide”, and “summary” to suggest that your article is an abridged read.
Medium offers an alternative. By listing at the top how long an article takes to read, the site provides readers with useful information without having to alter its editorial.
- Use numbers to pique readers’ curiosity
Readers love numbers. Consider the difference between the headlines “Ways to Get Fit this Fall” and “10 Ways to Get Fit this Fall”. Does the latter somehow seem more authoritative? Not only are readers attracted to numbers because they make an article seem more legitimate, but numbers stand out on a page surrounded by text, encouraging clicks.
Of course, this backfires when every publication is using numbers in their listicle headlines. To capitalize on this trend without blending into the crowd, use numbers that have meaning in your headlines and decks. These could include statistics (Nearly 1 in 3 lesbian and gay teens report being bullied), time (How to Write a Catchy Headline in 1 Minute and 7 Seconds), or dollar amounts (Pokémon Go is fastest mobile game ever to make $500 million).
As a writer and marketer, consider the reasons why listicles are so popular and use them to create unique, engaging content that resonates with your audience. These sorts of articles might be popular today, but quality writing is timeless.