9 simple ways to write infinitely better lists

Reading time: Just over 3 minutes

As a dedicated reader of blogs, I  stumble across lists like “The 15 ways to….” all the time. Here’s some advice on how to write better lists.

Readers like blog posts containing lists. You know:

Readers appreciate the promise offered by these posts. Lists help them feel that challenging issues can be overcome, according to psychiatrist Carrie Barron. Lists also help people set priorities and separate what Barron calls “the minutia from what matters.”

As the co-founder of List.ly Nick Kellet argues 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. But sadly, they sometimes use them as a crutch. Here’s a primer on how to write better lists:

  1. Have truly 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. But, honestly, isn’t it blindingly obvious that you should ask yourself a few questions first (tip 1) and take in photos of haircuts you like (tip 2)? Lame advice like that — stuff I already know — just irritates me for 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. But the first tip stopped me cold. 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 shoe’s 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. Achor 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. And the great thing about hotlinks is that readers who aren’t interested can easily skim by 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 then 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. And it presented some really good ideas. But I didn’t like the way each of the items on the list was a different length. 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 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 and opaque. “The Literal Status Update.” Say, what? Sentences and subheads require action words, They do the heavy lifting and they 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. But 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 had done it right.
  9. Make sure your photos match your points. A friend of mine had had a blood clot so I was especially interested to learn 10 Signs You May Have a Blood Clot in Your Leg. But the photos? They irritated me! They didn’t match the text. Slide #1 talked about redness but the leg in the photo didn’t look the least bit red. Slide #2 described swelling yet the photo showed none. Slide #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 click on your website again.


Are there any list posts you’ve particularly liked? What worked for you? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section. (If you don’t see the comments, go here and then scroll to the very end.) And, congratulations to Keri Collins Lewis, the winner of this month’s book prize, Outliers for her Sept. 16 comment on my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s blog post (or any others) by Oct. 31/14 will be put in a draw for a copy of the novel, Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi.

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