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.
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.
Four excuses for my tardiness to today’s meeting:
- Traffic accident on the Turnpike.
- Over-steeped morning tea; had to start over with fresh cup.
- Forced to wait through commercial break after Today Show cliffhanger for emotional closure re: Hoda Kotb’s preferred white wine to serve with shellfish.
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.
How to file your taxes in nine simple steps!
- Open a TurboTax account.
- Begin inputting your financial data.
- Remember you need to change the password for your online banking.
- Change it.
- Finish inputting your financial data.
- Forget to hit “save” before closing your browser.
- Repeat steps one through six.
- See amount owed; panic.
- 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:
- A bathtub full of dog biscuits.
- A discarded pair of my socks.
- A bacon cheeseburger.
(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!