How to break out of the listicle rut and start writing again

Awash in a sea of goldfish-level attention spans biting at click-bait, many saw the only way of staying afloat was to produce list stories. Here’s how to get your writing back on terra firma.

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Confession time: I write listicles—a lot of listicles—and it’s ruining me as a writer.

In a fervent attempt to become a “real writer,” I’ve recently made an effort to stop pitching listicles.

No more will I churn out numbered posts detailing the lies you tell yourself when you’re procrastinating, nor the best ways you can fake your way through a carefree summer, nor X thoughts you have when you’re marinating in a lukewarm bath.

I took the plunge a few months back and plugged my brain in to come up with some real ideas. Much to my surprise, I had some success.

“Sure,” replied Ms. Editor, “If you can get it to me next Monday—at least 2,000 words.”

Oh, what have I done?

I can’t write anymore. The thought of producing 2,000 well-structured words, with flowing narrative and continuity, makes me sweat.

I used to be able to write—really write. Words gushed out, unstoppable.

Related: Free guide: 10 ways to improve your writing today. Download now.

In school, I would play tricks on the teachers by pretending I’d been to incredible places on vacation. I hadn’t; I just had a knack for description and an overactive imagination.

Then came the internet, and with that came online writing—writing that feeds instant gratification with funny, sharable, chunkable pieces of writing.

So when I graduated from college, back when I didn’t have access to resources like this, I turned to the most accessible and lucrative form of professional writing one could find: I began churning out listicles.

I could talk to you all day about listicles. I can discuss why I never choose a round number for my list of items, the psychology of why listicles work so well or the best themes that will get the most shares.

Now I find I can’t bloody write anything real anymore. My brain has softened over the years into a weak, gurgling pulp that can’t fend for itself.

So I made the decision to start all over again: self-inflicted writing rehabilitation.

Surprisingly, it’s been less painful than I thought. It’s not pain-free, mind you, but the number of times I’ve wept onto my laptop have been fewer than I had anticipated.

If you also intend to wean yourself off the internet’s favorite content fodder, take a few tips from me:

1. Plan longer pieces in sections.

The brilliant thing about writing listicles is that you can make them as easy to write as you want. Because it boils down to assembling a snappy pile of chunks, if you want to throw any notion of structure out the window, you can.

It’s like the new sitcom that recycles the exact same formula from the sitcoms of yore. Yes, it has less integrity as an artistic product, but it’s still a fully functioning show that has everyone slapping their knees. Cheap, but it continues to reel in the viewers, and every writer knows it’s hard not to be lazy when you know you can get away with it.

Reverse-engineer this way of thinking. Plan your next feature the way you plan your listicle: in chunks.

Two thousand words split into eight sections is 250 words per section. Any old chump can write 250 words, right?

Then, when planning your piece, consider that two of those sections will be an introduction and a conclusion. Now you have just six sections you need to conceptualize.

If your brain is anything like mine, it feels a little less panicky when faced with one small chunk to tackle at a time, rather than that hefty 2,000-word dragon.

Don’t forget to make your writing time as productive as possible, too.

Bonus tip: Allow yourself slightly under the word count for each section and then you have a little breathing room for the “glue”—the sentences and segues that pull each section together, magically turning it into a cohesive piece.

2. Make it snappy

Before you throw the baby out with the bathwater, know that you don’t need to abandon everything you’ve absorbed during your stint as a listicle monger.

Listicles teach us more about human behavior than any other form of writing. The age of the listicle indicates a psychology that has a short attention span and is greedy for content, but is equally demanding about what it consumes.

To keep our petulant, infantile attention spans happy, make your writing as snappy as possible. Don’t let a large word count trick you into thinking you can use half-hearted filler. Make every word count.

Even printed long-form content gets broken up with jumbo pull quotes and punctuated with bold headings or images. Depending on your medium, don’t be afraid to call on these weapons to keep readers engaged.

3. Embrace the awful first draft.

You’ve heard this tip before, and I dedicate it to anyone who’s written anything, professional wordsmith or not.

Write a bad first draft. Let it be terrible. Relish in your ugly baby as you painfully tap it out, word by clunky word.

Every good writer knows that a first draft will be far from perfect, so stop wasting time agonizing that you’re not good enough and that everything you’re typing is garbage.

Just because you’ve been living off listicles does not mean you are unworthy of producing something utterly beautiful and transcendent.

Wipe the sweat from your brow, turn off your manic inner monologue, and slowly begin writing your little heart out. I promise you I can think of 27 reasons why you won’t regret it.

Have you ever found yourself in a writing style rut? How did you work your way into a new genre or niche?

A version of this first appeared on The Write Life.

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