Seven reasons to use lists in blog posts

Posted on February 28, 2011 11:47 am by | Blogging | Writing and Editing

I recently read a post taking issue with the number of blog posts that employ lists. You know the posts I’m talking about. Just today, Mashable offered, “Six Slick Ways to Customize Your Kicks Online.” Problogger recently offered, “5 Tips to Grow Your Twitter Presence.” Copyblogger offers, “6 Questions to Ask Before You Spend a Dime on Graphic Design.”

Jay Dolan, author of “The Anti-Social Media” blog, argues that lists are little more than the lazy blogger’s approach to avoiding deep thought.

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.

Lists aren’t a panacea for blog posts or other articles. But they can be useful. With that in mind, I’m offering seven reasons lists can be an effective writing approach:

  1. They’re scannable—Way back in 1997, Web usability expert Jakob Nielsen argued that people are inclined to scan, not read, web pages. Reading computer screens, Nielsen said, slows reading by about 25%. People are impatient, there’s a lot of content to consume, and the reader remains firmly in control of the mouse. Lists are inherently scannable. While scanning a narrative document, readers may only get some of the key points you wanted them to understand. With alist, they’re more likely to see each item, even if they don’t read all the text associated with each bullet.

  2. They’re useful and usable—Here, verbatim, is the comment I left to Dolan’s post:

    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.

    (To give credit where it’s due, Dolan did reply to my comment, agreeing that “academics, with their well-reasoned and thought out research, always trump my crazy and insane rants.” Actually all the comments to Dolan’s post are worth reading.)

  3. Just the facts, please—While I wouldn’t use a list if I were making a case or expressing an opinion, they’re a perfect format for sharing facts.

  4. What you’re communicating is, well, a list—Sometimes your deepest thoughts just happen to shake out as a list. You can spend hours research, jot notes, take a walk to collect your ideas, and the post still comes down to “eight reasons to take this action” or “four steps to accomplishing that task. It the nature of the post is a list, why pretend it’s something else? Just to look articulate and erudite? If you think so, read the next item in this list.

  5. Short is good—In a letter son, Blaise Pascal wrote, “I would not have made this so long except that I do not have the leisure to make it shorter.” The most influential of all my journalism teachers pounded into our brains the three Ts; she insisted our writing be terse, tight and telegraphic. As a writer, I certainly support Dolan’s notion that a good blog post can demonstrate deep thought, make fine use of creative transitions, build a story arc and present a compelling narrative. But (as noted in an earlier list item) how much time are most readers willing to commit to a post?

    When discussing executive blogs, many of my clients resist, informing me that their executives don’t have time to craft 1,500 brilliant words. “Thank God,” I usually reply. “Most readers don’t have time to read 1,500 words!”

    Lists aren’t the only way to keep it short, but if the other elements that favor a list are in play, they’re certainly one way.

  6. Lists get bookmarked—If I have an interest in a particular task and find a post that provides me with six concise steps to accomplishing it, there’s a good chance I’ll see it as a keeper, something I can refer to the next time that task finds its way onto my to-do list. You can’t go wrong if you think of list posts as reference material.

  7. Lists set and satisfy expectations—When a reader sees a headline that lets her know that the post will offer nine reasons to do something, she knows exactly what’s coming. In fact, that expectation may motivate her to stick with the whole post, since she wouldn’t want to read seven truly exceptional arguments for doing that thing, then miss the last two. And heaven forbid you promise nine items and only deliver eight; you’ll hear about that in the comments!

I agree with Dolan that a lot of the list posts I read warranted a more thoughtful, narrative approach. But lists have their place. The trick is knowing when to use them.




  • 1.Shel,great post. Lists are a formidable and easy way to disperse health-relative information to our community, and the scanning factor is icing on the interactive cake. And yes, sometimes deep thoughts can shake out AS a list or IN a list, which sometimes adds to the level of engagement we reach for.

    Kristin Hall | June 2011 | St. Louis, MO

  • 2.Were your ears burning this weekend, Shel? We did a live Inside PR recording with Terry Fallis and David Johns and you came up!

    I agree with both you and Jay on this one (and I think your concluding sentence pretty much sums up my thinking). There are A LOT of bloggers who only use lists and they're super popular and get RT'd and all that baloney. But you're right in that lists get bookmarked.

    We've actually experimented with lists and, sometimes not writing lists, but using the headline to say how many points are in the blog post. They ALWAYS have more traffic than other, more thoughtful posts.

    It's infuriating, but I think (to your point) they're easy to scan and easy to RT.

    Gini Dietrich | June 2011 | US

  • 3.Another thought about lists--yes, everyone uses these as attention-getters. I just wonder about who died and made all of these people experts?

    Janet Peischel | June 2011 | San Francisco

  • 4.Geoff Livingston

    Geoff Livingston | June 2011

  • 5.A top-quality surprises visitors with a variety of content:

    --Thought pieces

    --Controversial posts that encourage readers to comment

    --Audio and video

    --....and lists!

    Relying exclusively on lists looks like the lazy way out. But integrating them within your blog just makes it more interesting.

    Joan Stewart, The Publicity Hound | June 2011 | Port Washington, WI

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