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The One Reason You Read So Many List Posts

Easy List Posts - The Anti-Social MediaBloggers love to write list posts. How many times have you read a headline this week along the lines of “The 5 reasons you suck at Twitter,” “8 Tips for being a YouTube SuperStar” or “14 Reasons You Should Use Quora to Ask Any Question You’ve Ever Had?” 5 times? 10 times? More?

Why is that? What makes these posts so popular, and why do bloggers write so many of them?

  1. It’s easy.

It doesn’t require deep thought to write a list post. You just throw out a small introduction, write your list, give some details to each point, and then wrap up the post. It takes less time. The headline practically writes itself.

With a list post, a blogger doesn’t have to think about transitions and the overall structure of the post. Unless a blogger works very hard to incorporate a story into the list, there is no narrative or story arc. People expect however many gems of information there are and no more. The points don’t need to be connected beyond the loose theme introduced in the headline and the introduction.

Likewise, it doesn’t require extended brain power for a reader to absorb a list post. Readers look for the bullet points and quickly gobble down the information. They don’t have to dig through paragraphs to find the one nugget of information.

List posts make us stupider readers and writers. They are easy and they bring in traffic, but they sacrifice the quality and depth of our writing. True knowledge and wisdom doesn’t come in lists and bullet points, but through extended arguments and deeper thoughts. When was the last time you read a list and thought, “That was beautiful?”

You can write better. How many years did you spend in school writing? Put those to use now when you blog.

Hold yourself to a higher standard when writing. Use lists and bullet points as supplements, rather than structural elements. Will you blog like you learned how to write, or take the easy way out?

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41 Responses to The One Reason You Read So Many List Posts

  1. Hannah February 24, 2011 at 9:58 am #

    Checking Twitter this morning, the first 10 tweets I saw included 4 with list headlines/links (“5 Fabulous Facebook Tips,” etc.), and this. Ha.

    • Jay February 24, 2011 at 4:32 pm #

      I see my list won the attention span game. Woo hoo!

  2. Pat Kent February 24, 2011 at 10:00 am #

    I see what you did there (1. It’s easy) :-). Also, you are spot on. List posts are the easy way out for sure. I personally enjoy narratives but I can understand why everyone seems to click on list posts. As easy as it is for the author, it require no commitment from the reader either. If “blogger A” writes a narrative post I have to commit to it as a reader. If said blogger take that same info and mashes it into a bunch of bullets instead of crafting a narrative, the reader has no commitment and less time is wasted if the post is crappy. That being said, I hate the everlasting trend of list posts and I hope they all magically disappear from my RSS feed someday. I just don’t know if that is ever going to happen.

    • Jay February 24, 2011 at 8:18 pm #

      It will never happen, but we can be better writers. 🙂

  3. Dan London February 24, 2011 at 10:06 am #

    Top __________ to ___________ .

    Easy posts and have been done 1000x. Lazy blogging.

    • Jay February 24, 2011 at 11:51 am #

      Lazy bloggers. It’s like they want to have a life off of the internet.

  4. Morgan February 24, 2011 at 1:55 pm #

    I love that you just have #1. lol

    But it’s true, they are extremely easy. Though it also does break up the blog a bit to where our eyes can focus on the numbers we want to read instead of the parts we don’t. And yeah, that’s lazy reading, but it seems to be effective.

    • Jay February 24, 2011 at 8:16 pm #

      if you’re audience is lazy, you need to write for them that way.

  5. Chelsea Junget February 24, 2011 at 3:39 pm #

    Lazy, maybe. But it makes for easy reading. I don’t read blogs for lengthy, in-depth commentary. I look for digestible, actionable bites. That’s my preference, though!

    • Jay February 24, 2011 at 8:17 pm #

      But can everything be a digestible, actionable bite?

      Lists have their purpose, but sometimes there are ideas greater than numbering off a list.

      • Chelsea Junget February 25, 2011 at 12:47 pm #

        I agree that every post should NOT be a list. That’s truly lazy. But splashed a bit here and there can’t hurt.

        • Jay February 26, 2011 at 10:40 am #

          I like my blog with a splash of list.

      • Ian Greenleigh February 25, 2011 at 1:57 pm #

        While I agree with your comment, it seems at odds with your post, which seemed to not allow for the possibility that “lists have their purpose.”

        The post itself also seemed to conflict with your premise, as it was short, contained two-sentence paragraphs that might as well have been bullet points, and could have offered an argument that was much more developed (because it is a compelling topic).

        I also think you conflate being busy with being lazy. Executives, for instance, are far more likely to read summary-style writing because they think they have little time to dive into longer content.

      • Richard Keeves February 25, 2011 at 4:27 pm #

        Jay, an interesting and provocative post.

        at last… Lists have their purpose. Absolutely right. Not everythings needs to be condensed to a list, and not everything needs to be structured as a list, but lists are a way of focusing the thought of both the writer and the reader.

        And whilst every post does not need to be provided in bite sized chunks in order to be digestible, every post written for an audience does need to be written so it can be consumed by those for whom it is intended.

        imho, It’s not the List format that is the issue – although it often produces trite and superficial output. I think the issue is more the crap content provided in a list format with nothing substantial for the reader who was attracted by an alluring and enticing headline..

    • Alexandra Gibson February 25, 2011 at 2:11 pm #

      I definitely agree with you Chelsea. If I wanted lengthy, meaty commentary I would read

      1. A white paper
      2. A book
      3. A Businessweek or Vanity Fair article

      It may be lazy, but as a blog reader I love lists. We are overwhelmed by content and there is something to be said for a blog post that gives us the feeling that we can

      1. Read something
      2. Act on it immediately
      3. Measure results

      or

      1. Skim list
      2. Determine author is an idiot or Captain Obvious
      3. Move on with our multi-tasking day

  6. Claire Wagner February 24, 2011 at 3:43 pm #

    Thank you. I derided lists in a blog post once and got some flack. Bloggers love them and I find them irritating. Maybe it’s jealousy because they get away with not providing any real structure or segues when I have to slog through the process of carefully connecting complex thoughts all day long as a paid professional writer. However, one of the most popular posts I ever wrote (meaning, it got like, 10 comments instead of 0-1) was “six rules of writing.” Go figure.

    • Jay February 24, 2011 at 8:25 pm #

      I used to get most of my comments from posts called “Top 5 Tweets I Hate.”

      I think lists have their place, but they don’t prove your meddle to me as a blogger.

  7. Elena Patrice February 24, 2011 at 3:43 pm #

    Jay, I like your blog for the following reasons:

    1) Typically, you’re spot on and I sickly enjoy feeling like an idiot.
    2) I like your “angry” person drawing – simple, yet incredibly effective.
    3) I live in a black and white world.
    4) I think a red tie makes you look dapper.
    5) I like cats; however, mine is cooler than yours and you.

    Thank you.

    • Jay February 24, 2011 at 8:14 pm #

      1. Thank you.
      2. Thank you.
      3. Me too.
      4. Thank you.
      5. Nothing is cooler than my cat. She is as cool as Vanilla Ice’s funky fresh lyrics.

  8. Lance Haun February 24, 2011 at 5:21 pm #

    I have to think number 2 is that they are popular with readers. Now we can debate chicken vs. egg all day but I think the two really go hand in hand. Many posts are easy to write IMO but none have as much bang for their buck.

    I’m not above reproach on this either as I’ve done list posts when my well has run dry. They traffic very well certainly on slow news days or days without great insight and I think they can be in the content mix of a larger website. Our sites often have a list post maybe 10% of the time but it is no surprise to me that these often get pushed to the top read and shared posts on our site. And it’s not like we aren’t covering breaking news or providing deep analysis. We do that too.

    So yeah, I think it fits in if you have a lot of other stuff (mostly other stuff). But it’s one (among many things) that can be used selectively to bring in longer term readers.

    At some point, don’t we also have to point our fingers at the readers and people who share content as well? I mean, Mashable doesn’t exist if people didn’t read that stuff. But especially when it comes to social media specific content, it seems that people eat it up. Sort of like combatting garbage food by not eating it (or at least being a lot more selective about it).

    • Jay February 24, 2011 at 8:29 pm #

      Lance, there you go by bringing a well thought out and comprehensive comment to complement my angry rant.

      I agree, we do have to write posts that readers want to consume and want to share. Some of my list posts are at the top of my most popular posts and most shared. I don’t think they are going to go away anytime soon, I just think we run out of fun and actionable nuggets sooner or later and just recycle the same 15 tips.

  9. Jon-Erik Lido February 24, 2011 at 7:58 pm #

    As readers I think people actually expect answers from a list post, rather than having to actually dig around and, what do they call it… Oh yeah, “learn”. List posts are not just easy to read, they’re easy to stop reading!

    I’m just glad that this is one blog where we’ll never, ever see a list post.

    • Jay February 24, 2011 at 8:15 pm #

      No, I write list posts all the time. They’re effective for certain purposes. It’s just you can’t do them all the time, otherwise I don’t believ in your ability to write coherently.

  10. Tracy February 25, 2011 at 1:05 pm #

    It’s not just bloggers who seem to be relying on this cheesy writing gimmick – have you seen this month’s edition of Southern Living? A majority of the articles are list articles.

  11. John McTigue February 25, 2011 at 1:39 pm #

    Jay, I would just like to add another reason why numbered posts are so popular. We are so incredibly competitive (as a species). We’re obsessed with ranking everything from lousy singers and dancers to Presidents, to evil warlords. The only thing we like better than a 1-10 ranking is a 10-1 countdown by Letterman. Think about how sick this truly is. Oh yeah, I’m one of the tribe too. I hate that about myself though.

  12. Jessi Miller February 25, 2011 at 1:44 pm #

    Great post! I think you just talked me down off of a ledge. I was starting to think I SHOULD make more lists because people are lazy. But nah. Thank you!

    • Jay February 26, 2011 at 10:45 am #

      My goal in life is to talk bloggers off of ledges. I want to the social media whisperer who yells angrily.

  13. Shel Holtz February 25, 2011 at 2:38 pm #

    Many years ago, University of Missouri journalism professor Don Ranly coined the term “refrigerator journalism.” Another label for it: “service journalism.” The concept is to produce articles (and posts) that are concise, useful, usable and used. Ranly says, “Perhaps the primary rule of writing today is: Did you give the message in such a way as to take the reader the least amount of time? Readers will pay attention to what you say only if you show them respect. Today you show respect by paying heed to people’s lack of time.”

    Ranly points to the covers of the magazines you see at the checkout counters of supermarkets — the women’s magazines that still command incredibly impressive subscription and newsstand sales. They always feature lists: “Five ways to a slimmer tummy,” “8 ways to find your partner’s G-spot,” and so on. Why do they do this? It works. These are articles you can tear out of the publication (or print out, for that matter) and stick on your refrigerator.

    While I agree that too many bloggers take this approach when it may not be the best way to address an issue, I’d argue that it can be an incredibly effective tool. It’s why so many
    of the tweets I see have links to such list-based posts.

    I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss them, particularly if they make a post concise, useful, usable and used. As Ranly, says, remember that the opposite of useful is useless.

    • Jay February 26, 2011 at 10:48 am #

      Academics, with their well-reasoned and thought out research, always trump my crazy and insane rants.

      Seriously though, this is a great point Shel.

      I should have realized social media superstars don’t have the time to read a well thought out argument when they’re so busy with the Twitters. 🙂

  14. Regina February 25, 2011 at 3:52 pm #

    I agree that, in most cases, it’s lazy. However, people also know that lists will generate a lot of hits, so it’s traffic bait. I know for a tech blog I wrote a few articles for, the list of fashion apps I wrote? I think it’s had the most hits of all the posts I did for them. I didn’t write it as a list with the intention of getting a lot of hits, but once they started coming in, I realized people like lists. It’s quick and it’s easy for them to digest.

    Now, I’m on the social media side of things in that I manage it for others. I simply stopped reading cookie cutter list posts and RTing them awhile back. Every once in awhile one gets through though because the topic is different.

    I don’t think lists should never be used, but it really is something that’s used way too much these days.

  15. R Matt Lashley February 25, 2011 at 4:02 pm #

    Yeah well, let me just say this about that . . .

    You’re probably right. However . . .

    I don’t appreciate the sarcastic tone which oozed from your, “Vanilla Ice’s funky fresh lyrics”, derision. (How dare you, sir! How . . . dare . . . you. (sir))

    So . . .

    Now . . . .

    If I could convince you, for a moment, to just stop . . .
    to collaborate . . .
    and to listen . . .

    You’d see that excessive, inexcusable, excruciating misuse of the ellipsis to create false anticipation and mystery in web prose and copy far outweighs the pseudo-plague of so-called “list” posting.

    Word to your bloggers.

    • Jay February 26, 2011 at 10:44 am #

      I don’t think I’ve ever used an ellipsis in writing The Anti-Social Media, and I’d probably kill myself if i did.

  16. Paula Green February 25, 2011 at 4:36 pm #

    Thanks, Jay. You definitely got me thinking about this. Lists create the expectation/hope that the reader will find at least one “juicy nugget” that they can take with them and put to use. This applies online as well as in print (I have to agree with Shel about the notion of service journalism/refrigerator journalism.).

    There are bloggers that we follow for the mental stretch of discovering new concepts and ideas and there are those that we read for more practical, down-to-earth information. We need both kinds of information. Some writers provide both, and that’s to their credit.

  17. Bradley Armstrong February 26, 2011 at 11:31 am #

    So I guess you’re not really a fan of Cracked.com? I’d say about 80-95% of their updates consist of list posts.

  18. Michael Thimmesch February 26, 2011 at 5:30 pm #

    I couldn’t help thinking, a very ironic title to your post would have been “3 Reasons To Stop Writing List Posts.”

  19. James M February 27, 2011 at 4:45 am #

    You covered one of my major pet peeves when reading blogs. The other is How To posts. The sooner these die off, the sooner we can return to enjoying real writers like Gladwell.

    • Elena Patrice February 27, 2011 at 6:58 am #

      Glad you wrote that James … makes me realize how much I miss the likes of Gladwell and good writing. Now that made me stop and think – thank you!

  20. Michael Martine February 28, 2011 at 7:26 pm #

    The problem isn’t list posts, because as a format, this type of article has always and will always work.

    The problem is lazy, ignorant list post writers who couldn’t write any other kind of article well, either. I get your point and I dig the “anti” stance you take here (which could get real tired, real fast, so be careful). But by the same argument we could say that novels should be banned because Dan Brown is such an awful writer.

  21. Ethan Rotman March 1, 2011 at 12:42 am #

    Nice article but it would easier to read if you could just put your thoughts into a list…

  22. Geoff Livingston March 1, 2011 at 9:15 am #

    Having blogged for five years, I can tell you that you’re absolutely wrong. Providing lists gives readers an easy way to digest your information. Structuring content in a simple way for readers is not easy, but it is the mark of quality.

    • Jay March 1, 2011 at 9:15 pm #

      But structuring paragraphs in a simple, easy to digest way is just as hard, if not harder. You have to transition the points for fluidly, while making the information easy to digest.

      This is why most people can write, but most people can’t write a novel.