List stories are one of the most heavily criticized forms of journalism. According to detractors, list stories show a lack of thought, and are simply a lazy way to produce an article. However, I believe that, with a little planning, list stories can be as legitimate a form as any other. They simply have different considerations from most types of journalism.
Not that the criticisms aren’t justified. The structure and logic of list stories are different from the typical story. Instead of offering an obvious path of development of the central idea, list stories are constantly starting over again.
It’s also perfectly true that list stories often feel easier to write than an in-depth story that builds on a single point. Instead, list stories rarely have room to go beyond the general. As a writer, you just start to get into the discussion when it’s time to move on to the next item in the list. Rightly or wrongly, this can feel much less demanding than sticking to one topic throughout the article.
Still, I like list stories – maybe because one of my strengths or weaknesses as a writer is that I’m always tempted to make lists. Instead of squeezing the lists into conventional paragraphs, sometimes it just seems easier to give in and acknowledge the point by putting list items into a bullet list or using sub-headings.
If nothing else, a story divided by bullet lists or sub-headings looks more approachable online. Its blocks of text look smaller because they are divided. There are fewer formidably long paragraphs, and readers have more natural places to pause and return to the article later. Particularly on-line, you have more chance of being read if you organize your thoughts in a list than a conventional story.
Besides, list stories are a good place to use random thoughts and observations that are too short to make stories in themselves. All you have to do is generate some related points to go along with them – which is easier than it sounds, because often one point suggests another.
Developing the story
The trick of writing a successful list story is the same as with any article. You need to find what William Goldman calls “the spine of the story:” The central, unifying idea that justifies talking about all the points in the same story. Without the spine, a list story is just as bad as critics contend that it always is. With the spine, a list story can be as meaningful as any other piece. State the central idea in the introduction, and you’re well on the way.
Then there’s the question of the points themselves. For the article to work, all the points in the story need to be as strong as possible. Since you don’t have much space for each point, any that are vague or obviously padding are going to stand out.
At the same time, for some reason — call it the unspoken numerology of popular culture – some numbers of list items seem to be more widely read than others, such as 7, 9, 11, or 12. Any fewer than seven items looks more like a teaser than a story, while some numbers, such as 6 or 8, simply look wrong somehow.
But, in reaching one of the magical numbers, you need to be careful to avoid padding. Instead, you need to think more deeply, or perhaps see if any of the existing list items is complex enough to be divided into more than one section. If so, as a bonus you have at least two items than can follow one another, the second maybe referring back to the first and thereby increasing the unity of the entire article.
Pay attention, too, to the order of the list items. I always think in terms of what I call “relay order,” based on the order of runners in a team race in track and field. Typically in a four-runner relay race, coaches would have the second fastest runner begin, followed by the third and the fourth and ending with the first. By approximating this order, you start off strongly and end strongest of all. The middle might sag a little, so you want to mix the stronger points with the weakest so that there isn’t a downward descent in interest.
By the time readers reach the end, the original statement of the unifying theme may have grown vague with the details, especially with a longer article. For this reason, a list item needs to end like any other story, with a re-emphasis of what you want readers to take away. Nor does it hurt to explain why what readers have just read is interesting or worthwhile.
More than a list
Done thoughtfully, a list item is more than a collection of random thoughts. It may look simple and unassuming, but, behind the scenes, a conscientious writer needs to have a good idea of what the points add up to, and be ready to experiment with the order of items as they write. Often, you’re only know the most effective order after you write.
But that’s another part of what makes list items so suitable for online articles. Text editors and word processors are all about rearranging blocks of text – and, with list stories, you’ll have plenty of opportunities and needs for rearranging before you’re done.