10 Reasons Why Making a List is Not Writing
April 21, 2014 § 29 Comments
A guest post from author Jon Magidsohn:
I don’t like this trend. With the countless available web-journals, online newspapers and e-rags, there is ample opportunity for writers to have articles published. Yet more frequently what I’m seeing amounts to little more than glossy top-ten lists.
Here are examples from five different websites that all ran on one day:
- 10 things you should never say to a woman
- 5 myths about introverts and extroverts at work
- 7 floor lamps you didn’t think you needed
- 10 unique uses for vanilla
- 30 ways to make yourself miserable.
These essays come across as (A) checklists of things we should know, (B) inventories of things other people know, or (C) something we don’t want to know but because it’s been translated into a simple, comprehensive list we’ll scan through it anyway.
So after careful consideration, here are ten reasons why making a list is not writing:
- It provides an escape outlet. If anyone challenges, derides or disagrees with the list, the author can simply blame the topic rather than the composition. It’s just a list after all. It’s practically irrefutable.
- It appeases editors. It’s printable. I get that. Editors love running pieces that are graspable and have widespread appeal. These days an article is even more attractive if it guarantees comments and shares. But that doesn’t necessarily make it good writing or, for that matter, worth reading. In fact, if you have any sense at all you’ll stop reading this right now.
- It’s too easy. Writing, by its very nature, is supposed to be difficult. An author must work in isolation, fraught with doubt about every word, wringing blood from each sentence like a victorious gladiator. A list often seems like a first draft; an agenda with items ticked off.
- It discourages the reader from actually reading. It’s as simple as glancing at the NHL standings on the sports page. Readers just want to scan down to the end of the list to see if what they thought should be on the list is actually on the list.
- It’s catering to the video generation. Not that there’s anything wrong with people who grew up in arcades and rushed home to watch MTV. I’m sure they can all read books and stuff. But now that Pac Man has evolved into Call of Duty and Madonna into Miley, it may be safe to say our once vast spans of attention have been significantly depleted. We crave rapid-fire information. Newscasts have banners scrolling across the bottom of the screen with a different news story than the one being discussed. And the weather. And stocks. And the latest on A-Rod. When watching your favourite sitcom you are constantly being reminded about what’s coming up next. Patience and one-thing-at-a-time are now as archaic as the horseless carriage or spats or the Slinky.
- It’s a quick fix. Nobody seems willing, or has the tolerance, to spend time reading or writing stories with full paragraphs and some kind of narrative. If we can’t get the gist of what the author is saying in ten bullet points, then it’s probably not worth our time.
- It’s cheating. For non-fiction essays, it’s a great excuse to avoid unnecessary introspection or evidence of painstaking investigation. You might not even need to write complete sentences. As a bonus, when you’re piling up the word count, you need only make a few more additions to the list with variations on the theme. You might gain two or three hundred more words and six bullet points out of it.
- It’s lazy. It’s repeating the same things using different words. It’s saying things over and over again with a slight alteration each time. Synonyms are wonderful things. Believe me, I know. I’m lazy. Simply by admitting I’m lazy I’ve managed to add more words to this point about being lazy and extended this exciting essay about how easy it is to write things that everyone will want to read without actually saying anything original or clever.
- It’s boring. And overdone. And as a media trend it’s likely to run its course and eventually give way to something else like point-form notation or charades or Esperanto.
- It’s a nice round number. Reason enough to make a list. Any list worth its salt would be happy to have ten points. How can you have a ten point list with only nine points? That would be silly.
Jon Magidsohn is originally from Toronto, Canada. He’s written about fatherhood for dadzclub.com, the Good Men Project, Today’s Parent and Mummy and Me magazines. He’s also been featured on Chicago Literati, Mojave River Review, Full Grown People, What’s Your Story?-Memoir Anthology (Lifetales) and currently publishes three blogs. He’s been an actor, singer, waiter, upholsterer, sales representative, handyman and writer. He and his family are now in Bangalore, India, where Jon writes full time. www.jonmagidsohn.com
Agreed~ the list thing is a poopy way to write. And, it’s a super lazy way to get your blog tags to really pop (especially if you do your bullet points in bold case). But every “how to succeed at blogging” guru says do it. They however, never use fun words like “fraught.” And usually the only comments they generate on my blog are from damp eyed new kids who are starving for tips and tricks (the attention span of a gnat generation) to help them write their “My Family Tree” paper painlessly, I, for one, advocate the “fraught with pain” good meaty stuff!
Six reasons the ist essay (or book) will live on:
1. Lists are so post-modern.
2. Lists eschew old-fashioned chronological structures.
3. Lists are lyrical.
4. Lists are so meta.
5. Lists show us that traditional narrative structures are so not hip.
6. THE THINGS THEY CARRIED could have been much shorter.
Good list, Paul. Is this an argument For or Against?
I feel the same way and Q&A interviews. They leave me cold.
I frequently call blog entries that are comprised of a list “cheating.”
Oh, come on. How can you justify writing a list about why lists are cheap tricks? Talk to Lydia Davis, Sherman Alexie, Sei Shonagon, and scores of other fabulous writers who employ lists, and I’m sure you’ll have another think coming.
Thank you for pointing this out.
Yeah, lists are often empty linkbait, made for quick consumption, but the form has generated some excellent essays. You’ve generalized and missed the mark:
Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/irvinem/theory/sontag-notesoncamp-1964.html
And Tom Bissell: http://grantland.com/features/line-explores-reasons-why-play-shooter-games/
Cool photo, though.
Aaron. Thank you for pointing out that I was generalizing. Perhaps that should have gone on my list. The essays you noted are indeed quality; Sontag could have re-written the Yellow Pages and made them brilliant. But I must insist that both of them could have been written without the bullet points to equal effect. Just saying.
Well, you could write anything an infinite number of whats; that’s not saying much, John. Writing is creating order from chaos and an eternity of options. It’s a process of deciding what to do and not to do when you can do anything.
About the rest of your piece: you only get it partly right. Yes, lists are often linkbait, and yes, lists are not by nature essays. (Best of lists are the worst offenders.) But a list is not always trying to be “creative” writing. Sometimes it’s just a list, designed for quick consumption. Also, (1) you say lists aren’t writing because lists are “too easy,” but when you say “Writing, by its very nature, is supposed to be difficult. An author must work in isolation, fraught with doubt about every word, wringing blood from each sentence like a victorious gladiator,” you propagate that romanticized notion of writing as battle, and writer as warrior/martyr, which creates far more problems than lists do. Writing is usually extremely hard. But it’s not supposed to be anything. It’s just writing, and sometimes a piece almost writes itself. (2) When you say, “Nobody seems willing, or has the tolerance, to spend time reading or writing stories with full paragraphs and some kind of narrative,” you’re making a gross generalization that must, by nature, mean you also have no patience to read fuller text. (Maybe that makes you the ideal list-reader?) Attention spans are a concern, but they are not extinct. (3) By saying lists are not writing because they cater “to the video generation,” and referencing Pac Man and arcades and MTV, you reveal your generational bias and aging-man bitterness. Things have changed on you, and maybe you feel marginalized by your youthful replacements. (I’m 39. I get it.) Lists can be irritating and deeply lacking, but what’s lacking here is nuance, which is one of the very things you find missing from lists.
Yeah, it seems like I’ve been seeing more and more of these lists, probably because websites have realized that, if they put them in a slideshow, they can get 20 ad impressions instead of just the one.
Great point. Let’s call it Item number 11.
A list is just one more way to apply a constraint to one’s writing. Like a haiku, villanelle, or second-person novel, a list can be done well, or it can be done poorly.
What you have managed to do here is essentially say “Please no more terrible writing,” and possibly, “Please stop confusing [what I don’t like] with [what is considered good].” When either trend picks up, do let us know.
Signed, an unapologetic list writer and lover
You are spot on, Chelsea. If a list is done well it can be very satisfying both for the readers and for its author. And I am all for writing ‘constraints’ – I prefer to call them ‘rules’ – because they can actually inspire a great deal of creativity by adhering to them.
But as a writer I take issue with the trend when it proves that lists can practically guarantee publication. With no offense to our friend Dinty, I’ve had pieces rejected by Brevity in the past, until I submitted my list about lists.
I hope you do remain unapologetic about writing lists. I’m not advocating abstinence. But I probably won’t write any more myself.
Thank you, Jon, I really enjoyed this. Very thought-provoking, and funny. As you say, lists are great when the form fits the function. They have their uses when the writer’s intention is to impart some genuine wisdom and the reader feels herself to have received some usable take-away. Or when they are funny. And, as with any form, the well-executed prove enduring. You’ve got me wondering how things might have played out had Moses hiked down Sinai and tried to flog an essay that had come to him all-of-a-piece while he’d been holed up. He did have the constraint of the chisel, I guess. But his top 10 list (perhaps the first ever?) sure has endured (though there are several I don’t remember, several I’ve eschewed, and a couple that I’m sure he meant only humorously anyway). I’m glad you’ve shaken a stick at the trend, and hold out hope that as in all things, discernment will prevail. (I took it as given, btw, that you weren’t including the artful list-as-literary-device in your angst about the form.)
I would like to add my four cents here:
1. Some folks here, and over on the Brevity Facebook page, seem to miss Jon’s humor.
2. Jon is arguing against bad writing, and bad writing often poses as a list (e.g., Huffington Post).
3. One reason Huffington Post and some of the hipster blogs use lists is that they *are* click-bait. People click on them, knowing they will get satisfaction quickly.
4. The average Brevity blog post gets 500 hits on the first date it appears. Jon’s “10 Reasons Why Making a List is Not Writing” received 1,000.
Thanks Dinty. Nice list. I’m certainly not claiming to be the world’s greatest writer but, as you pointed out, bad writing doesn’t need any help being bad.
And hey – 1000 hits. Shall we try for 2000? Happy to have done my part.
Hilarious. I am composing an Open Letter in response: why I needed every single floor lamp (and more!) and what non-floor lamp people don’t understand about the world.
LIke Justice Stewart Potter, who wrote in a Court decision re pornography, “I know it when I see it,” perhaps we can make a similar claim that we know the difference between “Lazy-Listing” and “Lyrical-Listing” when we see it. The former appears to serve, primarily, a consumer-expedient, the latter an aesthetic purpose? We recognize that Whitman’s famous lists in Song of Myself fit the lyrical impulse (well, some do, many of my former students, who found them “boring” and “overkill,” not included. My favorite contemporary example is Eliot Weinberger essay “What I Heard About Iraq,” in which he compiles a long list of official statements about justification and progress of war, juxtaposing them in a way to highlight contradictions, lies, hypocrisies (in W’s view).
[…] Link to the Brevity blog post: https://brevity.wordpress.com/2014/04/21/10-reasons/ […]
Thanks for re-posting, Lindsay.
A student once complained to me about the essays we were reading for class. Students don’t like essays these days, he said. We prefer bullet points.
It’s all about spans of attention, isn’t it? I hope you told your student that in this case what he preferred wasn’t relevant.
[…] couple of days ago, I had come across a post by an author wh0’d written about ‘10 reasons why making a list is not writing.’ To sum up his views in a line, he believes that a list is an easy escape route for the video […]
Thanks for reposting and for your thoughtful response. I’ve put a link to your posting on my website.
[…] us, emphatically, that a list in and of itself isn’t a story and is not, in fact, good writing. His list made me laugh. And since I love Umbert Eco’s fiction, I was delighted when this short article at Brain Pickings […]
Thanks for mentioning me in your blog. Eco is right, the world and literature are full of lists and some of them are very good. And if Eco’s books have lists in them then he’s more than entitled to use them. But click over to Good Men Project (a site I love, by the way) or Buzzfeed to use two random examples and they’re teeming with lists written by people not named Eco. It’s numbing and, ultimately, a turnoff.
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This article was totally lame. It’s nothing personal, but I’m just saying: “There are more important things to do, like listen to J. Cole or Frank Ocean or Lorde. Pop music, as bad as it can be, can often trump reading lists about lists. Or, better yet, reading real writers (such as the immortal Borges or Calvino or Nabokov) is a much better way to spend one’s time.
–a video generation writer of fiction, poetry, essays