Columns > Published on April 17th, 2015

14 Reasons We Love List Articles

In my time as a freelancer, I've written hundreds of list articles. That's not a joke or an exaggeration. Literally hundreds. When I pitch multiple article ideas, the ones most commonly selected seem to be the list articles. And hell, even when I write articles in a non-list form, lo and behold, an editor decides to number my sub-headings and transform my work into a list.

Yes, this can be frustrating. The list article form—while excellent in many ways—is not ideal for all types of content. Some of what I consider my best, most thoughtful work comes in a non-list form. For whatever reason, it seems that editors, publishers, and even readers are less likely to respond to these list-less works.

Yet I digress. I am not here today to bemoan the list article and its current omnipresence. Rather, I'm here to discuss why we—as readers, writers, and publishers—love list articles so damn much. Let's begin.

1. It reminds us we can count!

When did you learn to count? Do you have any memories of what that experience was like? It's such a basic part of language that we sometimes overlook what a powerful tool it is: It allows us to divide anything—including abstract concepts—into discernible parts. By informing people of how many items there are in your list, you're providing a structure so simple that even a child, an advanced primate, or George W. Bush could understand it.

Each of the list's items serves as a de facto resting point that allows us to get back to email, Facebook, or porn.

2. It lowers our commitment level by enabling skimming.

We get it. We all think we're busy. Even on the internet, we think we need to be doing a million different things right this very second. If we're going to read an article, it better be worth our time—and one of the best ways you can get a sense of an article's value is to skim through it. Creating a list makes it easy to skim the article, and having a list-based article title lets us know that we'll have the opportunity to breeze through the main points once we click through.

3. We can see the end in sight.

We're more likely to commit to reading the whole article because we know there's only X more items to go. If we get bored or lost, we can just skip to the next item or skim to the end. In any case, we'll be able to get back to email, Facebook, or porn within a few moments. Knowing there's an easy way out of the article at any moment paradoxically makes us more likely to finish the whole thing.

4. Each idea is only a paragraph or two long.

Even if we read each point thoroughly, we still don't have to do much more than skim the surface. Perhaps more important than the depth of study, though, is the fact that each idea must be simple enough to be contained in a numbered point—which means it must be condensed in a way that makes it simple to understand.

5. We can break up our reading while tab browsing.

As previously mentioned, we are all so very busy that we can't afford more than a microscopic detour. As such, each of the list's items serves as a de facto resting point that allows us to get back to email, Facebook, or porn. (Because, really: Who wants to spend five whole minutes reading an entire article without distraction?)

6. We can recognize the article's concept in the midst of our social media stream.

We are overwhelmed with choice and that makes it hard to choose anything (a concept explored thoroughly in Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice). List articles get around this by offering a title that provides an easy to understand subject, structure, and objective (e.g., this article tells you it's about list articles, it's going to have 14 points, and it's going to teach you why people love list articles). In the flood of links, pouty status updates, and general self-promotion, list articles communicate a clear, simple option in the span of a single sentence.

7. It implies a question.

To provide enough incentive to prompt us to click on the article, a title needs to offer more than the simplicity noted above. The title will typically need two additional components. The first is that it will need to stimulate our curiosity. This, more than anything, is at the root of modern article titles. "9 Reasons Your Dog Secretly Hates You" or "6 Things You Never Knew About NASA" hints at a hidden set of knowledge that we'll gain access to by clicking on the link. And don't you just want to know?

8. It embeds emotion.

The second half of the equation mentioned above is the need for emotional resonance. We may be curious enough to move forward based only on the promise of knowledge, but what really drives us is a sense that we will have some sort of emotional response. It doesn't seem to matter what it is: disgust, joy, hope, or rage—we seem to be in an era where the major currency is the opportunity to feel something ... anything.

We are overwhelmed with choice and that makes it hard to choose anything...In the flood of links, pouty status updates, and general self-promotion, list articles communicate a clear, simple option in the span of a single sentence.

9. It bolsters retention by utilizing categorical memory.

On to less distressing thoughts, information organized into lists is actually far easier to recall because numeric and categorical organization aids memory. That's part of why we spend so much of our time in academia, business, and in everyday life organizing things into categories, to-do lists, and similar structures.

10. Writers don't have to know as much.

I may not be able to make up enough to fill a 1000-word article that examines a topic in great detail, but I can sure as hell bullshit you for one paragraph. And let's be honest: We all benefit from that. I look better, you get more of a sense that you're reading an expert's work, and we all go about our merry way.

11. Numbers are more visible.

We previously discussed that any given article or piece of media is competing with hundreds, if not thousands, of other posts. List articles have the slight but notable advantage of including a number. The Arabic numeral stands out while you're glancing through your stream, and that number also serves as a quick signal of what the post's content will be.

12. They exploit your biases.

Cognitive biases are fascinating and manifold. To name just one of the biases that is exploited by the list form, we have the commitment bias, which says you're more likely to continue committing greater amounts if you've committed smaller amounts in the past. With a list article you commit to click, then commit to skim, then commit to read the whole thing. As has been noted, the list format offers incentives at each step in this process.

13. They improve search engine optimization.

This may not seem like much of an incentive for readers, but hear me out. Search engine optimization is improved because the title of the list article matches up to common phrasings of Google-worthy questions (e.g., "Why do people love list articles?") and because, for the many reasons already mentioned, the content is more likely to be shared (including through links on existing websites). For those of you unfamiliar with SEO, I will keep it simple and just say, "That makes your article more likely to appear at the top of the search results."

This means we're more likely to encounter these articles as readers. It means we're more likely to read a lot of them. It means we're more familiar with this form than we are with other forms that are less optimized to float to the top of the content heap in our digital world. Familiarity leads to comfort and a sense that we know what to expect, and that leads to greater enjoyment.

14. They offer a sense of completion.

There's a sort of contract formed by list articles. They tell us how much information we're going to receive, they provide it for us, and we read through it. Knowing that we got through the article and grasped each point is rewarding, especially since the article probably promised us hidden, intriguing, or novel information. In some strange way, by having set us up to know exactly where the journey would lead, the conclusion of a list article feels more like closure than the end of less structured piece of content.

But those are just my thoughts on why this form is ... so ... damn ... popular. What do you think? Do you like list articles? Do you hate them? What do you think draws people to them? And what do you think non-list articles can do to compete with the listy overlords? Let me know in the comments, below.

About the author

Rob is a writer and educator. He is intensely ADD, obsessive about his passions, and enjoys a good gin and tonic. Check out his website for multiple web fiction projects, author interviews, and various resources for writers.

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