Seven Reasons Why Writing Listicles Are Stupid
By Giancarlo Riccobon
Hands-down, a literary listicle is the laziest, most derivative, most cynical thing that a web publication can possibly create. Sharing writing tips and artistic opinions is all fine and good, but formatting them in list form is an unforgivable sin. Listicles are repetitive: they attempt to explain art in a formulaic way, and they cheat readers out of a complete and unified blog entry.
Every blog is guilty of this, from the obscure blogs hiding in some cobwebby corner of the Web to the most high-profile ones with 30 million visitors a month. Well, all of them except the Voices Blog, anyway. Our conscience is clean. Let’s explore all the ways a listicle can utterly destroy your reputation as a blogger, a critic, and an artist—and overall make you seem like a terrible human being.
(For ease of reference, I’ve broken down my points into separate headings, but that doesn’t make it a listicle. Just sayin’.)
Listicles Turn Writing Into a Formula
The Hero’s Journey. Man in a Hole. Save the Cat. Save the Cat in the Manhole. Each of these represent a story arc in a different way (except for the last one—I made that one up to see if you were paying attention). For many writers, a tried-and-tested story structure can be the roadmap that guides them through their story.
But funnily enough, writers are stubborn people. They don’t like asking for directions. They don’t like being told what the rules are. And if some pompous blogger tries to tell them how to write their story, that writer will probably tell him to mind his own business and also, You try writing novels sometime and then you’ll see how hard it is!
And let’s be real for a minute. Those writers are probably right. (All of you writer-folk reading this, give yourselves a nice pat on the back.) Creative writing is an elusive thing, something that can’t simply be boiled down to a formula or a checklist. The moment one blogger declares that you can’t write a story without a Dark Night of the Soul, one clever writer is going to prove them wrong. (Of course, there will also be hundreds of clueless writers that will try to prove them wrong and only end up proving them right, but hey.)
Don’t get me wrong, you need to actually know the rules before you can break them; otherwise, you’ll just look stupid. But the problem with most listicles is that the blogger isn’t there to give you the lego blocks and then step back to let you build a Monster Truck Pirate Ship with a slide, or whatever it is you want to make. More often than not, that blogger will be handing you an instruction manual that will tell you exactly how to construct The Great American Novel, step-by-step.
Any listicle that tells you that the writing process can be broken down into seven easy steps must be trying to sell you something. Usually, it’s the blogger’s upcoming How-To book about writing, which will no doubt be filled with more formulas and more Rules with a capital R. Nothing is more self-indulgent than a blogger that says, “Everybody does it the exact same way I do it, and if you don’t do it that way, then you’re doing something wrong.”
Listicles Can Be Repetitive.
Sometimes two items on a listicle say basically the same thing, just in two different ways. Yet, because they are presented as two separate points, readers will feel like they are being served up something new. For example, maybe you advise writers to tell the story that they want to tell. Okay, fair enough. That’s an important point to make. In fact, you’re so proud of that insightful observation that you decide you might as well keep going while you’re on a roll. So you add another bullet point about writing whatever you’re most passionate about (whether it be about dragons or disillusioned English majors), and then add another that says something really wise-sounding about following your heart. Or maybe you will be sneakier. You might tell your audience to make sure every sentence adds something new, and then devote a whole new section to eliminating redundancy. Cleverly-disguised redundancy is a tried-and-tested way to give your article padding and make it seem like there’s more substance to it.
Listicles Excuse You From Creating a Unified Blog Post.
Suppose you can’t decide on a topic. There are too many to choose from! You want to write about misplaced modifiers, but you don’t have anything substantial on that yet. Plus, you have an idea for a post about mixed metaphors that’s been sitting on the backburner, but every time you try to pour your soul onto the page, you need to scrape the bottom of the pot. Not to mention the blog post about not procrastinating -- sometime you’ll get around to writing that… Rather than string together your words into a cohesive 1500-word piece, you only need to write a bunch of little mini-posts and then tie them together with a flimsy overarching theme. You can dash out a paragraph about misplaced modifiers, add your two bits about mixed metaphors, and then close it off with something about procrastination. Just slap on a title (like “Seven Things I Hate When Other Writers Do Them”) and you’re done! Listicles are the poor man’s five-paragraph essay.
Allow You to Write in Sentence Fragments.
Like a slide with bullet points. Or a grocery list. Because everyone likes reading grocery lists. More efficient anyway. Even if only the headings are in sentence fragments. Because the headings are the most important part. If they don’t have time to read the whole article. Skim the headings and they’ll get the gist. The SparkNotes version of your blog post. Won’t miss anything important. Except maybe a secret message buried in the middle of a blog post that nobody will read. Help! I’m being forced to write stupid listicles at gunpoint! Send help before he notices I’m not following the script. Uh oh, here he comes! Aaaaargh-- But kids these days, that’s all they have the attention span for, anyway. Ooh, look -- clickbait!
Listicles Put Art Into Boxes
Critics always seem to be trying to measure art. How smart is it? How funny is it? Where does it fall on the Make-You-Cry-O-Meter? What’s its artistic value, rounded to the nearest whole number? They take your precious poem and poke it and prod it and then dissect it with their scientific instruments. Finally they mount your poem on a wall, complete with its Latin name on a plaque, and when you look at it, all you can say is, “That’s not my poem!”
The listicle is a critic’s weapon of choice. After all, it’s nearly unbeatable. Who can argue with the empirical data of a Top Ten list? The numbers don’t lie. Even if a blogger won’t assign everything a % rating, they still might slap a label on somebody’s creative output and then stuff it in a dusty old filing cabinet. Watch out for listicles that say, “Seven Classy Arthouse Films That Came Out This Year,” or “Ten Prose Poems about Growing Up.” (What even is a prose poem, anyway? A poem that reads like prose, or prose that read like a poem? For that matter, does yellow-green mean green with a bit of yellow mixed in, or yellow with a bit of green mixed in? Answer me that, Crayola!)
A critic will use numbers and star ratings, genre labels and pre-packaged phrases, to strip away all the layers of your work until it can be summed up in a sentence. But by then it’s not your work anymore. Because if your entire story could actually be summed up in a single sentence, then why did you bother writing a whole novel?
Listicles Don’t Need Conclusions
If you decide to write a listicle, then that means you don’t need to come up with a conclusion. Listicles already set a pretty low bar, so nobody will notice if you leave out something as basic as a conclusion. No need to worry about summing things up or leaving the readers with something to think about. Once you reach the last item on the list, your readers will know it’s the end. Then they’ll walk away telling themselves, that must be all there is to the blog post, it has to be the end, and why were they expecting something more, anyway? Except, why are they feeling so empty?
Giancarlo Riccobon is a Polyphony Lit alumni and former Second Reader and a blogger at Voices.