The List Post: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Dear Bloggers & Content Writers:

List PostsSo, you’ve heard you can generate lots of traffic with a list article. You’ve been advised that readers love concise chunks of information arranged for the eye under bold headlines or set off with numbers.

Plus, list posts with their shiny numeric headlines are highly promotable, tweetable and ultimately “can be successful at getting links from other bloggers,” note Darren Rowse and Chris Garrett in Problogger.

It’s all true, my good writer, but there are effective and not-so-effective ways to write a list article. A few tips – five, to be exact – to write the good list post, avoid the bad, and banish the ugly.

THE GOOD: Offer real help
You’re drawn in immediately by the headline on Jenny Frank and Frannie Marmorstein’s article “8 Ways Pitching a Reporter is Like Dating.” Even better, you’re rewarded when you click the link. They offer eight bonafide pieces of information with details and examples to back it up. Sure, this piece is for the younger PR practitioner, and all the better for matching tone to the right audience. (Besides, articles in industry publications/blogs can be helpful reminders for pros, too.)

THE GOOD: Be consistent
Another point about the style in “8 Ways Pitching a Reporter is Like Dating”: the writers chose a theme (dating) and style (dating example followed by specific advice to PR practitioners) and stuck to it for each of the eight tips. They use light humor that doesn’t get in the way of the information you want to know and the dating examples aren’t random, they perfectly illustrate each tip. (When you read this list article, “4 Grammar Rules You Can Break in Blogging,” you’ll see that only one item on the list is really about grammar; the rest is style and formatting.)

THE BAD: Humor has its place
And that place is generally a comedy club. Humor in professional writing is tricky, and it greatly depends on knowing the audience and understanding what they want to learn (not what the writer thinks he or she needs to tell them). Humor that insists on being the center of attention, takes up too much space before actual information is delivered, or is off-putting or, worse, offensive, just doesn’t work.

THE BAD: Don’t over-rely on list posts
There comes a time when readers tire of the same old format. Your Twitter followers and Facebook fans will feel the same exhaustion, seeing promos for “3 Ways to This” and “Top 10 That.” More important, some types of information are better imparted through narrative or editorials or interviews and profiles. The data, details or research you’ve spent so much time gathering for your article is also better served with a longer, more thoughtful piece, where you can carefully present the information the audience wants to know and understand. (If you’ve got yourself a list-habit, check out the chapter “Blog Writing” in the Problogger book. You’ll find a wealth of inspiration, plus a section suggesting 20 different types of blog posts and the specific details they contain. It’s useful for the blog writer, corporate communicator, PR person, or community manager.)

THE UGLY: Have something to say
A rehashed list post, “Women: 5 Ways to Present Yourself Professionally,” went up on the Ragan website today, generating quite a bit of negative feedback. And while some pundits believe inciting the ire of readers creates buzz for your brand or blog, the bigger question is whether all those people griping about you today will come back to visit you tomorrow. The smart guess is “No, they won’t;” you’ve lost credibility and many readers won’t give you a second chance to re-establish it. Whether or not this post was designed to create controversy, it stumbles for most of the reasons discussed above:

  1. it doesn’t offer help, it lectures;
  2. it’s not consistent in style or content; as many readers noted in the comments, most of the items spoke to things men do as well as women, so why were women called out for correctives?;
  3. its attempts at humor fell flat for the audience (presumably women, since the headline insisted this was meant to appeal to women);
  4. it doesn’t have enough to say about its purported subject nor does it offer concrete details about whether these are real problems or mere observations – and what really can be done about them besides wagging one’s finger at women; and
  5. it insults the audience it insists it’s trying to help; that’s no way to attract and gain readers, but it’s a sure-fire way to lose them.

Say you observe something – at the office, online, in an industry publication, grocery shopping – and you think it makes a perfect allegory for a blog post. Great! But take the time to write out your thesis, develop your thoughts, search for supporting information, and see if there’s enough to the original observation to develop a strong through-line in a post or article. If there’s not, perhaps jot down your observation and place it in a Story Possibilities file or the Future section of your editorial calendar. I guarantee over time you’ll find the details you need to flesh out that idea and make it a helpful, insightful post for your readers.