A few weeks ago one of my favorite blogs, People I Want To Punch In The Throat, published a blog on why people love lists. Not being a people, it took me a while to get around to reading this blog because, quite frankly, I am not fond of lists. Mommie’s seventh grade English professor* called lists fodder of the unimaginative; I tend to agree with him – with one major exception, as I will explain here. (*The man had a PhD, thus earning him the title Professor).
For the most part, lists have no continuity. Even David Lettermen’s famous Top 10 Lists offer no factual thesis statement around which an argument can be built; they are simply short nuggets of inaccurate humor that would create a non-sequiter if strung together in paragraph form. This lack of grammatical structure is thematic to the type of list that I hate because at best it does not require rhetorical talent to write one, at worst it makes everyone think that they can be a writer – if you want proof, check out the blogosphere and see what I mean.
Like reality TV, lists are easy to create and inexpensive to produce; this is why you often find lists on the Internet masquerading as articles. In short, lists are lazy. Regardless of what the topic – from Top 5 Ways To Blow His Mind in Bed to 16 Must Have Looks For Fall – the list in question will generally meet the following criteria:
1. It took very little (if any) research to write it. If the information on the list was not already in the writer’s mental vault of information it probably did not make the list.
2. There is often no follow-up information as to how or why a particular item made it onto the list. How do I know that dressing up a man’s genitals like an ice-cream sundae will blow his mind? Did someone do a controlled study on the subject? If so, where was it published?
3. There is no continuity from one item to the next. Did you notice how my first two items could have been put together into a paragraph, with the addition of segue and the elimination of the second item opening? Did you also notice that this thought came out of nowhere and is followed by something that should have been item #3 instead?
4. The explanatory paragraph following each item on the list will point out the obvious, if such a paragraph even exists at all.
5. The entire list will total some seemingly random number that is not random at all. The number of items on a list will generally be divisible by 5; be an even number; or be a “magical” number like 3 or 7, or even 13 (as in 13 Things You Didn’t Know About Friday the 13th!).
These types of lists – the bad lists – are essentially popcorn for the brain, fun to consume, but hardly nutritious food for thought; they take the extremes and present them as commonplace, as a form of entertainment to the masses – 5 Things You Should Never Put On Your Resume will include suggestions like “Hobbies” and “Family Life”, as if people regularly share this information. As an advice columnist I am guilty of sharing the extremes, but the bulk of the letters I print deal with issues that reach a broader audience (the extremes get printed when mail is slow and the pickings are slim).
Now that I have had my say on what makes a list a bad list, I ask that you read my thoughts on what makes a list a good list – this way I do not receive hate mail from list writers who think I am picking on them!
A good list will, ideally, be part of a larger article; a feature used to organize information that needs highlighting for the ease of the reader. I am not saying this because I do this; I do this because it makes for a stronger presentation of material. Features of a good list include:
1. A natural starting point in the article that features it. Even if the entire article is one big list, there should be an opening paragraph of introduction and a closing paragraph to finish the article. Opening and closing with random thoughts is the sign of a lazy writer and is disrespectful to readers. If someone is taking the time to read your work you should respect them enough to offer a complete piece...hint, hint syndicated, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist that I have emailed with this very complaint! Stop wasting your talent on such schlock!
2. Well-researched information. Writing is 90% research and 10% talent, and yes I just made up that statistic to show how convincing something can sound when you put a percentage symbol next to a number and state it with a sense of authority. A good list is not a part of the web of inaccuracies found on the Internet; a good list offers cited information or learned rhetoric.
3. Follow-up information after each item on the list. A few weeks ago, I published my personal list of 39 Must Read Modern (and Not So Modern) Classics. After each selection, I added the name of the author. This small piece of information might seem obvious, but the point is that a good list does not leave out vital, explanatory information.
4. Continuity and flow. For example, this list of 18 Rules for Raising a Boy starts with the most important rule of all, upon which most if not all will agree (“Teach him what a skank is so he'll never bring one home.), and works its way down to the less urgent rules where there is room for debate and dissent (“Teach him about good pizza”. Huh?).
5. A good list keeps the readers interest while accomplishing the goals of the writer. If, as a writer, your goal is to make people laugh you need to make certain that your audience can relate to the humor in your writing. I personally find the lists on Cracked.com floor-wettingly funny, and several times have had to make an emergency trip to the litter box when reading them; my Co-Mommie (Mommie’s Mommie) thinks they are dumb. Happily, Co-Mommie is not the target audience of Cracked.com.
In my research on writing and rhetoric, done over Mommie’s shoulder as she studies the topic for her latest degree, I have learned that people love lists for different reasons. Good lists are appreciated because they offer a focal point and a summary of important information. Bad lists are enjoyed because people have short attention spans and seek to be entertained while appearing intellectual – which, I am told, is why USA Today has such a large circulation. (Ooooh, a needless dig! Sorry, readers, but my heart belongs to The New York Post!).
Ask Tazi! is ghostwritten by a human with a Bachelors of Arts in Communications. Tazi-Kat is not really a talking feline.