Readers like blog posts containing lists. You know:
- The 7 habits of highly effective writers
- Top 10 ways to find your career path
- 27 creative ways to find space in your home
Readers appreciate the promise offered by these posts. Lists help them feel that challenging issues can be overcome, says psychiatrist Carrie Barron. Lists also help people set priorities and separate “the minutiae from what matters,” as Barron puts it.
As the co-founder of List.ly, Nick Kellet contends that lists help us feel smarter, actually make us smarter and help extend our memory. “When many people contribute to the same list, you get a collective record of the crowd’s wisdom,” he says.
Writers like lists, too. Sadly, they sometimes use them as a crutch. Here’s a primer on how to write better lists:
1. Have meaningful content. I’m as easily hooked by a list post as anyone else, but when I’m lured into reading one I get mad if it doesn’t deliver what the headline promised. Take 7 Tips for Getting Your Best Haircut Ever from Women’s Health, for example. As a person who has her hair cut every six weeks, I was interested in this story. Honestly, isn’t it blindingly obvious that you should ask yourself a few questions first (tip 1) and bring along photos of haircuts you like (tip 2)? Lame advice like that—stuff I already know—irritates me, and I regret having taken the trouble of clicking.
2. Predict and answer important questions that are likely to arise. A while ago, I was looking to stretch a pair of shoes, so I went online and found a list headlined How To Stretch Your Shoes. Great! Just what I needed. The first tip stopped me cold, though. It suggested filling a zip-lock bag with water, stuffing it into the toe of my shoe and then freezing the whole thing for four to eight hours. Really? Wouldn’t that damage my shoes’ leather? I’m not prepared to risk a $150 pair of shoes to find out. Sadly, post gave me no further guidance. I moved on.
3. Provide useful hotlinks—and not just to your own site. When I read a list post without any hotlinks, like this one, I can’t help feeling that the writer is being indolent. Here, for example, tip 12, “Smile and laugh more frequently,” could have easily been linked with a story on Sean Achor. He is a well-known expert on positive psychology, and his 12-minute TED talk is both informative and deeply entertaining. The more information you give to your readers, the more fulfilled they’ll be. The great thing about hotlinks is that readers who aren’t interested in clicking can easily skim past them.
4. Brainstorm more items than you need. A good list has at least five items (fewer than five isn’t long enough for a list.) Large, round numbers suggest authority: 10, 50, 100. Odd numbers are intriguing: 7, 17, 37. Pick your target number, and try to generate enough ideas for it. Then—here’s the important part—cross out all the points that aren’t interesting or unusual enough, and go with the smaller number.
5. Know your word-count goal before you start writing. Many writers dislike math, but the arithmetic of writing is so simple you can do it on the back of an envelope. Take the number of points you want to offer and divide them by your final word count. If you have only 500 words it should be pretty obvious you can’t offer 99 Reasons to Switch from Vegetarian to Vegan. (The site offering that post used 890 words.) My estimate? You ideally want to allow at least 50 words per point. That means the most points you can squeeze into 500 words is 10.
6. Present your information in a consistent way. I liked the concept of Inc’s post 15 Ways to be More Productive. It presented some great ideas, but I didn’t like the way the items on the list were different lengths. Why were some points so long and others so brief? Were the longer ones more important? My guess is the writer didn’t brainstorm hard enough (or screen the interviews thoroughly enough) and then cut the less interesting points (tip 4, above).
7. Make sure each point uses a verb. I give plenty of props to the person who wrote the headline 7 Ways to Be Insufferable on Facebook. The amusing negativism of the head really made me want to read the post. But when I opened it up it gave me a migraine. The total absence of verbs rendered the subheads uninteresting. “The Literal Status Update.” Say, what? Sentences and subheads require action words, They do the heavy lifting and engage readers. I’ve used one at the beginning of each tip, here. Use them, too. Please.
8. Always number each item. I enjoyed The Oatmeal’s post on 5 Reasons Why Pigs Are More Awesome Than You. It made me laugh, which is perhaps why I forgave them for failing to include numbers on their list. Readers are less forgiving if there’s no humor involved. This post on 13 Brands Using LinkedIn Company Page Features the Right Way failed to number the 13 items, which made me want to click away to a list that got it right.
9. Make sure your photos match your points. A friend had had a blood clot, so I was especially interested to learn 10 Signs You May Have a Blood Clot in Your Leg. The photos irritated me, though; they didn’t match the text. Slide No. 1 talked about redness, but the leg in the photo didn’t look the least bit red. Slide No. 2 described swelling, yet the photo showed none. Slide No. 3 mentioned warm skin, yet the bare, vein-y leg looked awfully cold to me (not helped by the blue—a cold color—hospital gown and slippers in the photo).
It’s not hard to write a good list post, but it requires effort and attention to detail. Do it right, and your readers will appreciate you and share your information with others. Do it wrong, and they may never visit your website again.
A version of this article originally appeared on LinkedIn.