Skills & Expertise

5 Ways to Craft a Perfect ‘Top 10’ List

Insiders explain what makes a listicle a must-read

Everyone loves a good Top 10 list. We see them in magazines, scroll through them on blogs and usually chuckle when Clickhole or McSweeney’s serve up a satirical top ten.

Listicles provide a punchy way to assemble information in an easy-to-read article format. We asked writers and editors what makes a listicle work, why audiences can’t get enough of them and how to craft one.

And, in true listicle fashion, we put it in a list.

1. Come Up with a Strategy

Listicles may look easy to put together, but there is quite a bit of strategizing that goes into these often simple-looking pieces. The first step toward listicle success is to keep the content fresh; tied into something current. “Perhaps there is a movie or popular TV show coming out that would make a good top 10 piece,” says Sarah Sekula, an Orlando-based writer whose “10 Great Places…” series appears regularly in USA Today.

Anahid Lisa Derbabian, founder of Integrity Communications in Michigan, says a good Top 5 or Top 10 article begins with a hot topic that can include an emerging area or current trend. Make sure your audience is going to relate to the theme: “Envision your audience and what they may find compelling, funny, interesting, helpful,” Derbabian says.

While you may not choose a headline first, the headline should have catchy phrasing. You can play off a familiar saying, a movie title, well-known song or an alliteration, says Marissa Spano, branding and marketing consultant in New York City.

Sometimes starting out by jotting down the five, eight, 10 or 15 points is a good start to help get your creative juices flowing. She says writers can branch out on ideas by drawing a diagram to help visualize the piece. “Then, create specific and value-laden points and go back and edit each to make your points impactful with as few words as possible,” says Derbabian.

Good Top 10 lists have topically relevant tidbits in the teaser copy or subheadings to lure in the reader, while the paragraph elaborates on the individual topic, Spano adds. The key is to keep things concise, she notes.

“You’re not writing a book—you’re just listing its chapters,” explains Spano. “With a society stricken with ADD, it’s the easiest way to get across your message.”

Josh Catone, press writer at Seant, said listicles haven’t become popular because people lack attention spans, but because our attention is more fragmented—so the lists work well to convey information. Since Web audiences are generally multitaskers, “a format like the Top 10, which steps the reader from beginning to end in a clear, easy-to-follow, chronological way, works really well,” says the Texas-based editor. “It’s hard to get lost in a list post because you’re being ushered through.”

2. Rank and File

In Sekula’s USA Today listicles, she doesn’t rate the stores or swimming locations to show which is better than the next—all are top picks. Another way to present a top 10 is ranking items from good to best (or bad to worst), and it can be alluring to read your way down to No. 1.

If you do choose to rank your tips, you’ve got to put a lot of thought into the process, says Scott Ferguson, a copywriter from California. He says polling other people from a relevant demographic can help you get ideas for which topics to feature. Once you’ve got what you think is the best of the bunch, ranking them properly is crucial.

“You don’t want your best, most entertaining entry in the No. 8 slot, for instance,” Ferguson says. “If a majority of readers think your No. 10 should really be No. 1, then you’ve sabotaged your list’s integrity.” Some writers may be naturals at ranking; others can tap their original resources to get feedback on list order, Ferguson suggests.

“The list should build in interest, relevance and ‘I-didn’t-know-that’ surprise as you count down to No. 1, Ferguson adds. “The payoff needs to validate the time spent reading the entire list.”

3. Use Humor—and a Little Snark

One thing you’ve probably noticed in your favorite Top 10 lists is that they’re a little edgy—not only in what they say, but in how they say it.

“The art of the list is all about the humor. The snarkier, the better,” says Brock Cooper, an Illinois-based writer.

He notes that many people anticipate what’s in a listicle when they read the title. “It’s how you package that keeps them reading,” adds Cooper. He says that if you hook the reader with the first entry on your list, you’ll likely get them to read the entire thing. But if you fill your article with boring facts, the reader will move on.

Cooper says that as more articles are created using the list format, many are becoming too predictable.

“The readers are familiar with the subject and have an idea of at least what some of the listings are going to be,” he adds. “You have to have three or four that come out of left field.” Cooper recommends including a rare trivia fact or something that will engage the reader in order to make a listicle stand out.

Britt Reints, a Florida-based freelance writer, agrees that adding something unexpected is vital to a solid listicle. “Sure, a few of the items on your list might be no-brainers,” says Reints. “But if you’re not adding anything new to previous discussions, your Top 10 list is nothing more than a regurgitation of other people’s ideas.”

When Reints wrote a listicle about the worst zombie movies of all time, he chose Land of the Dead to start his article. Some readers say movie did not belong on his list, since the director is a pioneer of modern zombie flicks. “It got a rise out of them,” notes Cooper.

4. Boost Shareability to Drive Traffic

Readers like listicles, but there are payoffs for magazines and writers, too. Top 10’s usually generate quite a bit of traffic online, which can boost the reputation of the writer and the publication. Use the right keywords—and not too many of them—and you can strike gold.

“Lists are great for generating traffic, particularly online,” says K. Tighe, former publisher and editor of Poor Taste magazine. “The key is making sure we don’t trade quality content in for the easily searchable kind.”

In addition to the right blend of keywords to drive traffic to a list online, Tighe says another way to drive traffic to an article is to create a buzz around it. She recommends that editors and writers work together to determine which criteria is necessary when doing a ranked list. This ensures the list is well thought-out with the purpose of engaging readers and, in the social media age, getting them to talk to each other about the piece.

“People will disagree, controversy will ensue, which is great for traffic,” says Tighe. “But controversy should never be the goal. Great content should be the goal.”

What’s all the fuss about when it comes to driving traffic? Websites like Digg encouraging people to read listicles helps to get them to read your publication, and ultimately, to purchase your product or service.

Because of the nature of listicles, they are likely to be shared, adds Mashable’s Catone. “There’s something about lists that make them eminently sharable,” says Catone. “The anticipation you experience while reading through a list makes it almost feel participatory. That, coupled with their accessibility, makes lists good material to share with large groups of people, which of course makes them very attractive to editors.”

5. Ask Yourself: “Should I Say It in a List?”

So if you’ve got a monster idea for a listicle, is this the right format for your words?

“Pretty much any piece of journalism can be converted into a listicle, but not every piece should be,” Tighe says.

Because Tighe covers the food industry in her publication, she uses listicles to help identify trends, incorporate dishes and restaurants from different locations and get fresh content up quickly. “If a reader wants to know where to eat the best Chicago hot dog, a long-form piece on its history isn’t going to be much help,” she says. “A pithy list of the 10 greatest dogs in Chicago, with representation from various neighborhoods, is exactly what readers need.”

A listicle can include ramblings off the top of one’s head, or it can incorporate interesting facts and quotes from related sources. According to Catone, it all depends on the goal of the feature, and it depends on the website, as well as the audience.

“At Mashable, if we’re talking about the top 10 ways to market your site on Twitter, we’re going to look for anecdotes, stats, expert opinions and examples to lend credence to our advice,” says Catone. “But for another site, say the personal blog of a known social media expert or someone trying to brand herself as such, just their opinions might suffice.”

So go ahead and get familiar with the numbering feature in your word-processing software. Once you start writing your listicle, it’s hard to stop at 10. And why should you?

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