Improve Your Blog and Build Readership with Lists
Part 6 of Blogging 101
Is there a writer anywhere who never made a list? A shopping list? A task list? A list of points to make in a blog article or a book? Sometimes a list article can spice up your blog, too.
1. Lists as Literature
List articles have been a mainstay of writers since long before the Internet. Moses wasn’t the first list-writer when he wrote his famous “Ten Ways to Keep in Sync with Your One True God” (more popularly known as The Ten Commandments). Equally popular, though, is Genesis’ “God’s Guide to Creating a New World in Six Days (and Still Take Off the Sabbath).”
And is there an American school child who hasn’t studied The Continental Congress’s Best Reasons to Revolt Against the British Crown (also known as the Declaration of Independence).
Clearly, some lists have staying power.
Writers have been publishing lists throughout history, both inspirational and mundane.
“The time has come,” the Walrus said, “To talk of many things:
Of shoes – and ships – and sealing-wax – Of cabbages – and kings –
And why the sea is boiling hot – And whether pigs have wings.”
— Lewis Carroll, “The Walrus and the Carpenter” from Through the Looking Glass
2. Some List Article Rules
There are a number of useful rules for writing lists, even if you’re the type of writer who likes to break rules:
- Use a single topic for each list.
- Keep your entries consistent with your topic. Just because something is interesting doesn’t make it relevant (unless your list is 20 Random Thoughts). Don’t pad your article with unrelated info.
- Use parallel structure when writing your list. Be consistent about beginning each list item with a verb or a noun or gerund. (I often have trouble following this rule.)
- Keep your list items at roughly equal length. (Another rule I can have trouble with.)
- Beginning each item with the same word or phrase is another way to tie together a list.
As an example of that last rule, Joe Brainard wrote an entire memoir, I Remember, as a list with each paragraph beginning with “I remember.” Your own literary aspirations might not fit into that kind of formal straightjacket, but a blog list might.
Another effective example of using repetition comes from an ancient Hebrew list circa 515-1015 B.C.:
“…Praise him with the sound of the trumpet:
praise him with the psaltery and harp.
Praise him with the timbrel and dance:
praise him with stringed instruments and organs.
Praise him upon the loud cymbals:
praise him upon the high sounding cymbals.
Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord.
Praise ye the Lord.”
— Psalm 150 (Psalm 149 in Hebraic form) (King James Version)
3. What is the Ideal Number for a List Article?
A list doesn’t have to be long. Some lists are as short as three items. But a very short list might imply you don’t have much to say about the topic.
As with many things in the blog-world, there is debate over the ideal number of items to put in a list.
Some say odd numbers work better than even numbers in attracting readers. Darren Rowse of the ProBlogger website suggests using an odd number to encourage your readers to add their own items to even things out.
But multiples of five also seem to work well.
Even numbers may suggest authority, as in Top 100 or Top 50 lists. Top Ten lists are very popular. Top 10 is also also widely used in humor and satire.
At least one writer believes prime numbers are ideal: 3 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, and 23, and so forth.
I haven’t seen anybody propose the Fibonacci series as ideal, but you’re welcome to give it a try: 1-1-2-3-5-8-13-21-34-55-89. (The series starts at one and progresses by adding the previous two numbers together.)
In my opinion, unless you are specifically writing a Top Ten or similar article, it may be best to let the topic and your research determine the best number to use. Adding items just to pad out your list could make for a boring list. Other times you may have difficulty paring it down to a specific number.
4. When to Use Lists
Lists are popular with readers who don’t have lots of time to read about a topic. It also is a great way of breaking down a complex process or topic into simpler steps and concepts.
Lists are useful for reviewing news highlights, curating research, planning activities, teaching, How To articles, and even for sharing recipes. You can use lists to promote your earlier blog posts or to share vast amounts of info from around the web.
Technically, every blog is built around a list of articles. A blog visitor may browse a list before selecting an article to read. The blogging website A List Apart builds on that principle with its lists of articles. But this is different from writing list articles.
You could make your blog stand out by exclusively using lists, but most bloggers should think of lists as one of many tools to use to create variety in your writing.
In fact, the most popular posts on my Frugal Guidance 2 blog are list articles, and many other bloggers have found the same to be true.
5. How to Order Your List
There are several ways to organize your list, including:
- Least popular to most popular
- Most popular to least
- Least specific to most specific, and vice versa
- Logically (instructions and recipes, especially)
Darren Rowse (see link below) suggests several ways to order your lists. First, by popularity, least to most popular. (The other direction leads to anticlimactic endings unless you are careful.) But if you are offering recommendations, you can use most effective to least, or most widely useful to most specialized.
Rowse also suggests putting the three most popular items as first, second and last. This grabs the reader at the start, but gives incentive to read to the end. (Except when the reader doesn’t know you’re saving the best for last.)
Logical order is perfect if you are giving instructions on how to do something. i.e., Ten Steps to Building the Perfect Patio.
I recommend that you don’t ditch all your training as a writer to keep the list in a certain order. It’s a list, but the post may be a story, too. If it makes sense to keep interest high by putting your best points at the beginning, the middle and the end of the post, do it.
Long lists can be divided into subsections. You can continue the numbering across sections (showing continuity) or restart numbering for each section. If it makes more sense to restart the numbering, consider whether you should publish the info as a separate list post.
Another option, if you have many good ideas, is to create a list series. If new material comes up regularly, a weekly or monthly list can keep your readers coming back for more. An annual series can work, too, such as a list of New Year’s Resolutions or The Year’s Best or Worst.
Keep the writing succinct, flowing, grammatically correct and interesting, just as you would do for any other post. After you have a few lists under your belt, look back and see if you can develop some of your list items into a separate posts, keeping the editorial calendar well-stocked.
6. Headlines Are Critical
A good headline can definitely boost the popularity of your list. A few standard forms include:
- Ten Amazing Ways to…
- Recognize the 7 Warning Signs of…
- 5 Easy Fixes for…
- Six Types of xxx, Which are You?
- 3 Delicious Ways to…
- The 8 Secrets of…
- 9 Steps to Mastering…
- Building a Bassoon Reed in Just 5 Steps
OK, I just added that last one to see if you’re still paying attention. There are many more steps to making a bassoon reed, but you knew that, right?
A good headline not only makes the topic clear, but gives an implicit promise to teach something. And you better fulfill that promise! Is there an experienced blogger who won’t click on the link to “Seven Ways to Increase Your Readership” or “Five New Ways to Use SEO on Your Blog” just to see if there’s a new idea or technique that she isn’t using yet?
Another form of listing uses the phrase “Alternatives to…” This can, of course, be combined with a number, as in 9 Alternatives to Microsoft Office.
There is a large alternativeTo website that specializes in crowdsourced alternatives to popular and discontinued software. (It’s a good resource for researching your own lists, too.)
Some writers keep a file of good headlines of list articles for inspiration.
7. Numbering and Formatting Lists
Finally, it seems obvious, but you usually should number your lists. Most logically start with one, but countdown lists can work towards a climax. Some smaller or simpler lists may work with bullets, too. If you use a number in your headline, you should number your list.
The only time bloggers regularly do not use a numbered list is when the list is crowdsourced and more people are adding to a list in progress.
For simple lists with little support info, a simple HTML ordered list is often best, for example:
George Orwell’s list of rules for writers:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
— from Politics and the English Language
If each item has a paragraph or more of text, subheads are better than HTML lists. H3 or H4 headlines usually make sense. (You’re reading one such list now.) You could use boldface text instead of regular headlines, but search engines are more likely to index headlines.
If you know CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), your imagination is the only limit to the custom designs you can create for your lists, using colors, different fonts or styles, numbering, indentation, tables, and more. Artwork, logos, and design elements can help, too. This post shows five ways of presenting lists (not including color), can you find them all?
Whichever way you number, keep the formatting consistent throughout the piece or you may confuse the reader. For example, if you start your list items with an
<h3> tag, don’t switch to an
<h4> tag. The reader might confuse it with the beginning of another list or a sublist of the previous item.
In the heat of inspiration you might combine items or expand your list while writing. Always carefully proofread your list to ensure the number of items matches the number in your headline. Also make sure you haven’t skipped a number or used the same number twice. This actually happens fairly frequently and blog readers love to point out these inconsistencies.
Lists with live links are easy to research and share on the web, in ebooks and in PDFs. They don’t work on the printed page, though, if you have dual use in mind.
Generally, it’s a good idea to end your list by asking your readers to add their own ideas to a list.
If you’re still not convinced about list posts, just go to any popular blog, look at the favorite or recent posts, and see how many of them look like lists.
Do you have more ideas on using lists? Please list them below in the comments!
More Reading about Lists
10 Steps to the Perfect List Post by Darren Rowse on the ProBlogger website. This article is the most complete how-to for creating and formatting lists that I’ve seen. (Bravo! Darren.)
How to Write a Compelling List Post for Your Blog by Ariel, on the Elegant Themes Blog. This article puts its emphasis on writing good headlines for your list posts (and making sure you follow up on the promise).
The Top 10 Qualities of High-Quality List Posts by Pamela Vaughan on HubSpot.com. Emphasizes the need for quality, not quantity, in your list posts.
And for literary list inspiration, you may enjoy:
Phil Patton’s Our Longing for Lists (New York Times, Sept. 1, 2012);
The entire website Lists of Note, includes much advice from and for writers. (Warning: this site can cause you to lose track of hours.)
An example from Lists of Note: author Larry Niven’s How the Universe Works, a list of his universal wisdom.
The title artwork / HTML is by the author, Andrew Brandt.
The Master Plan list is also by the author, with processing in Photoshop and Topaz Labs plugins.
In addition to experimenting with ways to present lists with CSS, this post also implements a new color palette for lists, quotes, pullquotes and more. The CSS also separates the format from the color scheme, which is is a new technique, too.