After writing my first three blog posts, I decided it was time for an experiment. Something new. Something bigger. I would create the ultimate guide on using Google to find what you need.
I dove in. 1,000 words. 2,000 words. 3,000 words. By the time I hit 5,000, I decided to turn it into a book. I spent a week writing it. It came in at 14,000 words and over 200 screenshots.
The information was great. The examples solid. When I put it on Amazon, I sold zero copies. Of course. I had no idea about covers, descriptions, and marketing. But I’d written a book. I’m proud of it to this day.
My Google guide was a fluke. I didn’t plan for it. I had an idea, got excited, and ran with it. Still, the experience taught me an important lesson early on:
If you don’t break your own patterns, you’ll never be a great writer.
The web is full of listicles. Listicles are the locusts of the internet. They quickly appear on any growing website or platform, grow exponentially in numbers, and, by the time the dust settles, all users have left to say is “Oh yeah, that place,” while rolling their eyes.
Listicles are the most pervasive form of lazy writing because they’re the most efficient structure to tease the human brain with potentially interesting information. They’re easy enough to come up with, easy enough to master, and easy enough to keep repeating with slight tweaks.
Listicles are also a great way to ruin your writer’s brain. They’re just as addictive for makers as they are for takers. Soon, you’ll find yourself with lists of lists, wondering why you don’t have time to write anything else — and why you don’t want to. You won’t want to because it works.
A short intro about an issue the reader cares about, a few bullets with potential solutions — strategies, tactics, new perspectives — and a quick conclusion at the end. Maybe a summary of your bullets or some inspiration to get cracking and voilà: the perfect listicle. Heck, you can even skip the conclusion! If other 10,000-clap pieces can get away with it, why can’t you?
You can — and that’s where the problem starts. Especially as a new writer, listicles provide comfort. Their tried and true structure is like a set of training wheels. You can wade into the waters, and no one will curse you out for your terrible writing. After all, they’ve seen it a million times before.
Readers can barely tell the difference. Did a 10-year-veteran write this list of five writing tips? Or an amateur who doesn’t know what a semicolon is? Who cares? They just learned something. They’ll forget it in the next ten minutes, but hey, that’s just the game now, right? Attention spans and stuff.
Worse, on places like Medium, you won’t just see popular listicles, you’ll see profitable ones. Listicles making thousands of dollars. Who knew you could make a living with this stuff? Why struggle with your arguments in an essay or do a research deep dive when you can just report five habits one famous person found in an interview with an even more famous person? That’s the dream!
As so often, the dream is a job in a sweatshop, disguised as an Instagram picture of riches and fame. I’ve fallen for it, like most writers will at some point. I’ve written my fair share of listicles, and I’m sure I’ll write some more. But it gets tiring fast. Your brain goes on autopilot. You won’t learn anything. You’ll just crank out list after list, and the only thing making you feel good about it will be the numbers changing behind the dollar signs.
The listicle is a foundational block of good writing structure. But it’s not good writing itself. Good writing hits us with arguments before we know what’s happening. The convincing points are so woven into the story that, by the time we’re done reading, we barely notice we’ve changed our mind completely. We’ve assumed a new perspective as naturally as we tie our shoes in the morning, and we think we found it all on our own. That’s great writing.
I get it. You’re afraid without subheads, no one will bother with your article. In fact, many people won’t. Oh god! What if they can’t see the bullets at first sight? What if they don’t already know the conclusion? What if I end a section on an ambiguous note? All of this, too, can be great writing — and you know why? Because it entails risk.
You risk losing the reader in exchange for a promise of better. Will they trust you? Who knows. But if all you do is deliver them three new email hacks on a silver platter, they won’t have to. You’ll never be more than the source of their latest five-minute distraction, and they’ll never feel the joy of venturing into a new chapter, not knowing what’ll hit them and then being delighted when you bring them back home. Taking on this risk leads to writing that matters.
Few listicles get more than a shrug. They’re forgettable at best and unprofitable at worst. Every writer should master the basics, but there is no worse crime than getting stuck in consistency without experimentation.
Don’t put yourself in that box. Try everything. Write a 20-minute rant. Craft a New York Times style op-ed. Research your favorite movie for days, and tell us the story of its most underrated character.
There are a million ways to make your readers laugh, cry, think, and feel. It’s impossible to list them all, and many of them don’t rely on digits. Like William Cameron once said: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”
Writing is rich without numbers, and so is your creativity.