Listicles are oftentimes the bane of any modern creative, professional, or technical writer.

The listicle: an article that unfolds in a list. These typically rank individuals or ideas from best to worst, or biggest to smallest.

Whether it’s 5 Ways to Cook for Mom or 8 Tips to Improve Your Social Media Following, listicles are everywhere. Sometimes, it’s 10 more ways to use non-system fonts on a website. Listicles seem like quick-to-craft clickbait, but they are often some of the most time-consuming articles to write.

What’s the deal with listicles and why do they have such a protracted development time?

Read this article to better understand how to prepare successful listicles.

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Woman checks off boxes on her listicle
Tierney MJ

Listicles Aren’t Simple–They Take a lot of Work

A listicle worth reading is more than just a haphazard retelling of a BuzzFeed article.

It utilizes unique images, gifs, or infographics. It also presents information you might not be able to get elsewhere.

Listicles can help us take stock of the latest developments.

For example: Top 10 Fastest Electric Cars on the Planet

Electric car prototypes have been coming out of the woodwork since the late 1990s. With so many examples from well-known to obscure, a listicle helps figure out which ones are the fastest.

Of course, there are hallmarks of BAD listicles to avoid, too. But the jury is decidedly out on whether or not list articles are “bad” by essence.

Some suggest that listicles are “simple” or “cheap” or any of a slew of negative adjectives. Others couch their justification for listicles in self-deprecating, negative platitudes suggesting they take no forethought, planning, or research.

Why not just admit that listicles are a necessary and valid part of the way we consume media in the 21st century?

Seriously: it is an article with a large amount of digestible information. For skimmers, busy people, or anyone at all, how is that a negative thing? By proxy, it makes crafting a good listicle neither simple nor cheap.

Remember, being succinct is one of the most difficult things in writing. Listicles are the ultimate boiling down of information into a digestible format. They require a large amount of research, skill, and knowledge just to begin.

As Mark Twain once said: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Below is a guide for all of you writers on how to write your own version of a “short letter”.

Person struggling to write listicles
Visual Generation

Example of a Worthwhile Listicle

Aside from the ones we’ve shared from our own blog, some sites just write great listicles. In my opinion, the best listicles create novel impact.

Over at LaserFocusWorld, editor Conard Holton writes, “Although digital marketers can be accused of transforming “listicles”—web articles in the form of lists—into a simplistic tool for generating clicks, Laser Focus World has long had a more meaningful December tradition of listing the most important and influential stories of the past year.

LFW’s listicle for December of 2017 was “Laser Focus World’s top 20 photonics technology picks for 2017“. This listicle is on the dense, intellectual side, but its value is apparent.

Between eye-popping statistics, excellent images, and an enthusiastic tone, this is the kind of article that can draw traffic and perform as a longstanding informational resource. You traffic goals may be geared toward the short term, and that’s okay. However, the best listicles bring traffic fast and for a long time.

My Experience With Writing Listicles

This informs one of the main reasons why some writers struggle with listicles. If you want to write one worth reading that someone else hasn’t already written, you have to get creative. You also have to invest time in the writing process.

Prioritizing digestibility over substance leads to a “cheap” listicle. In other words, easy to read doesn’t always mean interesting. However, if you write something too complex and dense, you will lose readers almost immediately.

When I wrote my above-linked article on non-system fonts, I had budgeted three hours for the article. It took double that amount of time. Between all of the below factors, I was in over my head.

  • Sourcing the fonts
  • Double checking sketchy websites (a constant plight of the web editorial writer)
  • Researching the origins
  • Finding appropriate images
  • Putting the fonts in context
  • Formatting the article for SEO keywords

Thanks to Journalistic Integrity™, I persevered. However, I also knew that people wouldn’t take the listicle seriously if all of those components weren’t in place. Of course, as much as content matters on a list style article, format matters, too.

As a general rule, if your listicle isn’t the best available that you can find, don’t publish it.

image of Spongebob Squarepants scrolling Tumblr for article Why Listicles are so Hard to Write
Spongebob Squarepants | Nickelodeon via Pinterest

Endless Scrolling Works for Tumblr; Not for Listicles

If I didn’t already make it apparent, a good listicle takes a ton of research. That’s why the best examples are so useful and attractive. Good listicles give you the key points to a mountain of info.

And that’s the hardest part of writing a good listicle. You must make exhausting amounts of information seem light and accessible.

That’s why organizing information is paramount. Take advantage of the many formatting techniques at your disposal. This can break up dense blocks of information and make them easier to engage.

In other words, listicles have to be quick, fun, and informative.

Experienced writers will tell you that their editors are saving graces and secret weapons.

The story is the same here. Between line edits, formal edits, and recommendations on formatting, another set of eyes make the organization even better.

When it comes to listicles, everyone expects a numbered list.

The trick is to break up that list with supplementary information, practical links, and sometimes goofy images. Fun fact: I initially only needed to do one article on non-system fonts. But the original draft was oh….around thirty pages long?

image of Maya Rudolph from SNL via Giphy for article Why Listicles are so Hard to Write
Maya Rudolph | SNL via Giphy

Less than ideal.

To maintain reader interest, a listicle needs to be concise and clever, but you also need to know when to “fold ‘em”.

If you are approaching a draft length of 1000 words with only six items; firstly you need to revisit your syntax, and secondly you also need to consider breaking up the information. 

Beyond that, you can also use tricks like my bulleted list above to further segment and compartmentalize the article.

Line breaks are also extremely effective and necessary. If you are moving onto a new line of thinking, line break. If you find your paragraph running just a bit too long, line break.

In many ways, it’s a great deal like writing poetry in that you kind of just make it up as you go. Reviewing and changing this afterward uses the same principle as A/B Testing. Break up the listicle in multiple ways and see what looks most appealing to you.

I went to school for poetry, so I say that as both a joke and an irrefutable fact.

image of Jim Carrey in Bruce Almighty for article Why Listicles are so Hard to Write
Bruce Almighty | Universal Pictures

Finally: Don’t Sacrifice Quality for Quantity

One of the biggest mistakes (including myself) most writers make when drafting articles is thinking that more information makes the writing better.

This is patently false, regardless of what you are writing. With listicles, this advice becomes even more imperative due to the nature of the article type. You need to make every word carry its weight and cut anything unnecessary.

In the mood for some lists? Check out some of these fantastic listicles from around the Edgy Labs Universe.

5 Industries 3D Printing is Changing

Top 5 CES 2018 Startups That Dominated Eureka Park

13 Reasons why Industrial Hemp Will be Part of Industry 4.0

What are your tricks for writing good listicles?

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