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Three Reasons to Love Lists (No, Really!)

Yes, I know the internet is awash with lists.  Yes, I know that many of them are terrible. No, that…

Yes, I know the internet is awash with lists.  Yes, I know that many of them are terrible. No, that does not mean lists are do be avoided at all costs. Do we impugn all comedians because of Pauly Shore? I certainly hope not. There’s a reason list-style posts are perennially popular, and there’s a lot you can take from them to enhance your own (non-list) posts.

At the risk of causing a list-based meta-implosion that sucks the entire internet into the wormhole of Top Ten Celebrity Baby Names, here’s my list of three reasons to love lists.

1. Lists help you organize your own thoughts.

As a writer, lists are helpful organizational tools — if your thoughts are a-jumble and a post isn’t coming together the way you’d hoped, breaking your ideas down into a list of bite-sized chunks can be a useful way to bring order to the chaos. You can easily move list items around and group related thoughts, and since you’ve spewed all your ideas onto the list, no important bits get unintentionally left by the editorial wayside.

Once you’re done writing, remove the list elements if you’d like; they’ve served their purpose. Toss in an intro, a conclusion, and a few segues, and boom: a perfectly proportioned post. Or keep the list formatting, to walk your readers through a complex argument or highlight your important points.

Lists are also satisfying for you and your readers. It feels good to cross something off a list.* Working your way through a list post taps into a little bit of that satisfaction, as does reading one.

*I’m not going to say that I sometimes add already-completed items to lists just so I can cross them off, but I’m not going to say that I don’t, either.

2. Lists are highly shareable.

One of the first publicly recorded lists, the "King List" was carved into walls all over lower Egypt in an early but slow-moving display of virality.

One of the first publicly recorded lists, the “King List” was carved into walls all over lower Egypt in an early but slow-moving display of virality.

Go to Facebook. Or Twitter. Or Google+. Scroll for a minute. Count the number of list posts you see. We’ll wait here.

Why? Posts that can be consumed quickly, are easily skimmed, and have clear highlights make the rounds — they’re useful, either as education or entertainment, and it’s simple to pull out the important bits.

Should you publish all your posts in list format to increase your odds of viral superstardom? Please don’t.  But do be aware of what makes list posts such regulars on the social sharing scene, and think about how you can inject those elements into your own.

3. Lists are comedy gold.

Things that subvert our expectations of a list — that lists display reason and order, that each item on the list is important, that the list contains complete information — are funny.

To go meta on our meta post, here is a sub-list of my four favorite ways to write chuckle-worthy lists:

Putting silly items on a list gives them fake gravitas, and that’s funny.

Look at Stephen Colbert: being serious about decidedly not-serious things can be hilarious. When you put something on a list, you’re saying “This thing is important and your attention should be drawn to it.” When the thing itself is actually totally insignificant, the juxtapostion creates humor. It’s like atoms colliding, but with less potential for nuclear fallout.

Consider:

Four excuses for my tardiness to today’s meeting:

  1. Traffic accident on the Turnpike.
  2. Over-steeped morning tea; had to start over with fresh cup.
  3. Forced to wait through commercial break after Today Show cliffhanger for emotional closure re: Hoda Kotb’s preferred white wine to serve with shellfish.
  4. Reasons.

If there is anything less important that Hoda Kotb’s Pinot/shrimp scampi-matching preference, I don’t what to know what it is. But if you know, put it on a list! It’ll be funny.

Odd numbers are funny.

I’m using “odd” as in “strange,” not mathematically odd. Lists with nonstandard collections are always more amusing than lists with round numbers of items. The top 14 or 22 reasons for something is always funnier than the top ten.

The top 37 is the funniest, but use that one sparingly.

Listing the steps of a task in excruciating detail is funny.

Going overkill on details and listing each one of those details as a list item is another great list-subversion tactic — now, readers can no longer assume that each item on the list is actually significant.

If you try this technique, you earn Bonus Komedy Points for steps that aren’t really steps at all, and an extra gold star if you combine a detailed list with an odd number of steps and some mundane items.

To wit:

How to file your taxes in nine simple steps!

  1. Open a TurboTax account.
  2. Begin inputting your financial data.
  3. Remember you need to change the password for your online banking.
  4. Change it.
  5. Finish inputting your financial data.
  6. Forget to hit “save” before closing your browser.
  7. Repeat steps one through six.
  8. See amount owed; panic.
  9. Call accountant to do your taxes.

Does “remembering you need to change your password” need to be separated from “change your password”? Do either of those things actually help you do your taxes at all? No, and that’s why it’s funny.

Repeating items on a list is funny.

Repetitious lists help you really drive a point home while also being funny: a win-win!

I could write, “My dog really loves chicken.” Or, I could write:

Seven things my dog wishes he had right now:

  1. Chicken
  2. A bathtub full of dog biscuits.
  3. Chicken.
  4. A discarded pair of my socks.
  5. A bacon cheeseburger.
  6. Chicken.
  7. Chicken.

(By the way, that is a completely accurate list.)

The takeaway is the same for both — you could rob me blind if you broke in and threw my dog a chicken wing — but one is way funnier.

As with the first two points, this doesn’t mean you need to write everything as a list. You can pull these concepts out and use them in regular narrative. Repetition and emphasizing minor details are not exclusive to lists.

The next time someone sends you a link to Top 30 Signs Your Relationship Is So Cute It Makes Your Friends Nauseous, feel free to shake your head sadly as you delete it — but remember that there are legitimate reasons that post is engaging, and you can adapt them in your own work.

Ed. note: notifications for this post were accidentally sent about 12 hours ago — apologies for the duplicate!

72 Comments

  1. Yes! I am a huge fan of lists because it just makes things so much easier to understand and you can do a lot with them! Plus it means you don’t have to write in full sentences or make use of little segue words and that always stresses me out so bonus on that front.

  2. Lists are useful especially for providing instructions in how to tutorial style posts. I like using the display posts shortcode to create lists of posts I want to feature from a specific category and unsurprisingly, I have published how to posts on how to use it effectively to create list posts.

  3. As a fairly new blogger, this was quite helpful! Thanks! I am a big list maker…and often put things on my list I’ve already done…makes me feel much more accomplished ! I will try this with a blog or two and see how it goes!

  4. I like lists. I advise my family to make lists. I believe that once you write down “things” onto a list, you don’t have to think about those things anymore. I let the list worry about them. Then, I can go to sleep, without all those “things” on my mind!!! I think I have the makings of a list here. Have to put that on my list, too!

  5. LOL nice list of lists you have here! Awesome article! We think you have a great deal of lists converts on your hands now!

  6. Teehee. Nice post.

    I totally agree on the satisfaction factor of reading lists. People like things to be measurable and, especially in this short-attention-span-busy-busy day and age, the “list” posts make it easy for us to not only quickly scan an article, but also allows us to sort of gauge our progress! We enjoy achievements (however big or small) and measurability. :)

    1. Exactly! And the occasional list can be a nice change-up from whatever your regular posting style is, and a good way to drive home your most important ideas.

  7. This could not have been more ironic… I just posted “CELEBRATE VALENTINE’S DAY: 37 WAYS TO LOVE YOURSELF ON FEBRUARY 14TH” on my blog today. Although I’m not normally a big list person, this one just came to me. But the fact that this post specifically talks about lists and says, “The top 37 is the funniest, but use that one sparingly” was all too coincidental. Anyway, I appreciate your outlook on lists. I agree not to overuse them, but if that’s what comes to a mind for a post – and it’s a good one – then, for the reasons you stated, I think that it’s okay once in a while.

  8. Thanks for this. I’ve always loved lists and it’s great to find people who agree. I only have one published on my blog so far because I only started a month ago, (which you can read here ) I also have some lists saved for rainy days when I can’t think of what to write about.

  9. Great post, I am a HUGE list maker! My thoughts, the more I can check off my list the more accomplished I feel. At the end of the day, I can say, “Yes, I was quite busy today”, look at my checked off list.

      1. Oh my goodness, there’s more of me out there…. ha ha… life is so interesting and it’s great to know there are other like minded people in the world. Cheers!

  10. Love this post! I am a huge fan of lists. Have used them even before blogging. Keeps me on track and organized. I do plan to use a few once my blog is live but will make sure to keep them short (and funny)

    Thanks

  11. Me and my wife are compulsive list makers. For the most part the lists we make are a necessity in order to gauge whether we got anything accomplished for the day or just wasted it away. On a personal note, when I put the pen to paper to make a workout, schedule study time, or plan out my daily activities I end up meeting my goals or exceeding them.

  12. I have several list-style post in my blog. I have a love-hate relatioship with them. I do them when I am bored and cannot think of anything else to write, a backup plan. It’s lazy. I’m sure I’ll do them again from time to time, when I have nothing to do and want to be lazy. That idea of laziness is what makes me not pay attention to the list-style post of others.

  13. I love lists. I think that love is generally restricted to Type A personalities though. I also have a hard time reading blogs and articles if they aren’t in list form now thanks to Buzzfeed. Lists are revolutionizing our culture!

    1. It’s funny that you say that. I am a huge list maker and some of my friends and coworkers have said I am a Type A; I absolutely do not consider myself anywhere close to a Type A, but now I am wondering if there is some of that in me somewhere and I just keep ignoring it.

      1. I don’t think anyone possesses all traits for only type A or only type B. I am predominantly type A but I have type B traits too. Like I procrastinate some things and I’m pretty relaxed and don’t stress. But I’m a super perfectionist, super neat most of the time, like to be in control, like having a plan and making lists lol.

  14. the buzzfeed-style lists are definitely getting old, but without every other kind of list, i don’t know what i’d do! i definitely start out my blog posts that way too! without my lists i’d have no sense of organization!

  15. I love to-do lists, because it’s so easy to forget. Plus, there’s that satisfaction of being able to cross off a task–physical proof that I’ve accomplished something.

    I hate when lists are posted as a sideshow–don’t really have the patience for those (like Internet videos).

    And of course, grocery lists keep me from forgetting key ingredients in a recipe.

    I like lists because they don’t contain extraneous material, but I’m a storyteller, so lists are not a medium I write in very often.

    Funny, I’ve always preferred Jay Leno’s monologues over Letterman’s Top 10 anyway.

  16. This is timely! I started a post this weekend about how to make the imperfect purse in seven easy steps . . . just finished it tonight, and then read this. :-)

  17. I love the computer, iPhone tablet…….but a list on a piece of paper or post- it is something I will never give up. And it does organize my mind, but reading philosophy organizes my mind as well. I am not a philosopher or student there of, but it does take a lot of concentration and organizes those lazy cells.

  18. I used to make chore lists for my kids, one list per day. They learned fast that the sooner you got one chore done, the better were the choices for the next chore (all the easiest chores going first, to the quickest worker!). It literally was a race to get to the chore list before anyone else, to get a whack at the “best” chores. I loved it!

  19. I love lists – making them, writing them, crossing items off after completion, adding already-completed items and crossing them off – you name it. All of these reasons led me to create a weekly column on my blog called List of Seven on Sunday. I use a numerical decimal system to tally the count every week and one word that sort of ties all the content together. Sometimes not all of the items on my list are related, but I try to create somewhat of a theme. I also use reoccurring tag lines for each item to keep myself and the readers somewhat organized. So… 1. Thanks for writing this. 2. You gave me some new ideas for my column and more confidence about list writing. 3. Check ya later.

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