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10 Steps to the Perfect List Post

List-Post List Posts have always been a popular format of post for bloggers. Today Ali Hale examines how to write the perfect list post and gives some great examples along the way of list posts that have done well on blogs.

List posts are ubiquitous – and hugely popular – in the blogosphere. As bloggers, we love them because they’re fun and straight-forward to write, and they do well on social media. As readers, we love them because they’re easy to scan and to take one or two great points from. And both bloggers and readers love the fact that list posts are fun to comment on and link to.

They can be serious or fun:

List posts are often amongst a blog’s most popular posts. For example:

So list posts are definitely a power-keg with the potential to send a traffic explosion to your blog. But a badly-done list post will fizzle out with a lacklustre response. Throwing down a handful of disconnected ideas as “My Top Ten Ways to Succeed” won’t achieve anything.

Here’s 10 step-by-step, planning-to-publication ways to make your list posts as effective as possible:

1. Decide on the number of items in the list

The first step is to consider how many items you’re going to put in the list. Think about the reason you’re writing the post and the topic you’re covering. If you’re producing a huge resource list, go for as many items as you can (101 is a popular figure, but if you can’t manage that many, try 50 or 25).

For posts such as “X ways to…” or “X reasons why…”, picking a figure between five and twenty-five usually works well. Be aware that different numbers have different effects:

  • Round numbers (eg. 5, 10, 20, 100) may give your readers a greater impression of authority. This gets used a lot in traditional media (eg. The Observer’s 100 Greatest Novels of All Time, or The Sunday Times’s Best 100 Companies to Work For).
  • Odd numbers (13, 17, 26) are sometimes thought to encourage additions. (For example, Zen Habit’s 17 Unbeatable Ways to Create a Peaceful, Relaxed Workday.) A good trick is to suggest “9 tips for …” or “19 tips for …” and ask your readers to submit a tenth in the comments.
  • Very low number (3 or 4) might suggest to readers that you don’t have many ideas on the topic.

2. Keep each item in the list similar

Whilst generating your ideas, keep them in the same structure. Your post might be a list of:

Avoid mixing the types of items in your list: a post which gives the “10 greatest ideas for writing” and jumps from tips to quotes to websites to instructions. This sort of list lacks cohesion, and is likely to lose readers part way.

3. Brainstorm more items than you need

Once you know how long your list is going to be, and what type of items you’ll be including, start brainstorming. Aim for at least an extra 10% more ideas than the number you picked in #1. (So, at least 11 items if you want to finish with 10, at least 112 items if you want 101 and so on…) This ensures you’ll get the strongest ideas, because you can cut the few which aren’t quite good enough.

Go through your list and scratch out anything which:

  • Doesn’t fit with the topic
  • Isn’t a full idea (sometimes you can merge these into other items on the list)
  • Might seem like “filler” to a reader – these often slip into long lists

For example, when I came up with 4 low-fat alternatives to ice-cream for Diet-Blog, I’d originally written five and included “sugar free jelly”. But all the others were frozen desserts, so I scrapped that one as it didn’t fully fit in.

4. Order the list Logically

Once you have all your items down, think about the sequence. You don’t want to post them in whatever order they happened to pop into your head: some readers might “cherry pick” items from the list (especially if it’s long), but others will read the whole thing, and it helps them if you’ve structured the post.

The way in which you order the list will depend on what it covers, but these all work:

  • From most to least popular for “Top ten/twenty/fifty…” lists, eg. Top Ten Blogs for Writers 2007 from Writing White Papers.
  • From least to most popular, usually for shortish lists. An example is Lifehacker’s Top 10 Smart and Lazy Ways to Save Your Workday. This can work for long lists, eg. TechCult’s Top 100 Web Celebrities.
  • Alphabetical order works well for lists of resources, especially glossaries or jargon definitions, such as The Blogger’s Glossary on Daily Blog Tips. (You could also try a spin on the list post and write the “A-Z of…” a topic.)
  • Chronological order is a great way to make your ideas flow naturally, if you can make your list follow the pattern of a day, week or year. I don’t see this done often, but it can be very effective. For example, Copyblogger’s Five Tips for a Successful Freelance Writing Career roughly follows goes from the start of the workday.
  • Step-by-step order works for posts such as this one and Dumb Little Man’s Five Steps to Planning an Effective Presentation, which take the reader through how to do something.

Also be aware when ordering your list that you should put your strongest items first, second and last. If you start with the most obvious or bland ideas, readers will switch straight off; ending well strikes the perfect note to encourage comments, click-throughs and new subscribers.

5. Break very long lists into sections

If your list is over about thirty items, it’s a good idea to split it up into sections. (You might even want to do this with as few as ten items.) A huge block of text on the page is intimidating, even when in the form of a list, and using subheadings also lets you provide a list of anchors at the top of the page to jump readers straight to the relevant section.

Try to find categories that the items can divide into. For example, Freelance Switch’s list of 101 Essential Freelancing Resources is broken down sections like:

  • Timing
  • Invoicing
  • Project Management and Organization
  • Stock Libraries

If you do split your list in this way, you can optionally start renumbering at each section (eg. a list of “50 great sites” could become ten sections of five, each numbered “1, 2, 3, 4, 5”.)

6. Consider making your list a series

Sometimes, your ideas are strong enough that using them all in one post is a waste. If you have quite broad items on your list, ones which need more than a paragraph or two of explanation, then it’s worth considering turning them into a series. This way, you can get five, ten, twenty or more posts for the price of one.

Lots of very successful bloggers write series of linked posts that could have originated from a list. A couple of examples are the 5 barriers to success series on Skelliewag and the 7 essential WordPress hacks video series on TubeTutorial.

As Darren explained in 24 Things to do When Stuck for a Topic to Blog About:

I could have chosen to break this actual post down into 20 or so smaller posts – a series.

Another way to approach this is to split your list into sections (see #5) and use each section (rather than each individual item) for a separate post, creating a short series. This works well if you find the list too long for a single article, and if it has one or more natural breaks.

7. Be consistent in how you write each item

If you’re writing a list post, readers expect each item in the list to be structured in a similar way. I’ve seen list posts where bloggers used different styles (usually <h3> and <strong>) for different halves of the list, for no reason and this can be confusing: the reader wonders whether they’re encountering a new item, or a subsection of the previous one.

  • Either use bullets or don’t – Some lists are formatted as a numbered, bullet-pointed series (each list item is contained in an <li> tag), others are simply paragraphs. It doesn’t matter which you choose so long as you keep it up throughout the list. A good rule of thumb is to go with bullet points for lists with little text per item (see Copyblogger’s 10 Steps to Becoming a Better Writer or Zen Habit’s 31 Ways to Motivate Yourself to Exercise) and to use regular paragraphs for more wordy lists (like this post).
  • Use the same style for each item title – <h3> tags are good, both for search engines and to break up the list into easy chunks. But if the text for each item is short (one paragraph, or a couple of lines), too many <h3> sections will look odd: use <strong> instead. This also applies if you’re writing a list broken into multiple sections – you’ll probably be using <h3> tags for the section headers, so use <strong> for the titles of the items.
  • Have similar length titles for each item – Lists look neater when each item is a similar length. It’s a good idea to avoid letting titles run over the end of a line, if you can – try to keep them snappy. Steve Pavlina’s popular article 10 Stupid Mistakes Made by the Newly Self-Employed has between three and seven words for each item title.
  • Use a similar format for each item - Readers tend to want “more of the same”, and they like to know what’s coming next. Keep the length of the text for each item similar (don’t mix one-line and three-paragraph items). If you’re using an image for each item, do it consistently – for example, The 5 Worst Reassurances in Tech History has a chunk of text for each item accompanied by an image.

8. Always number the items

One thing that frustrates me as a reader is lists that promise “20 ways to grow the perfect strawberries” – then don’t number the items. I start to suspect I might be being cheated out of one of the ways – perhaps there’s only 19! – and I have to count how many items the list contains. This is made even harder when the titles of items aren’t distinguished either (eg. 5 Factors Guaranteed to Sabotage Your Writing Efforts.)

Even for people without my suspicious nature, un-numbered lists are a pain, because it’s hard to know how many items are left. Readers are more likely to keep going, rather than drifting elsewhere, if they know there’s only ten/five/two items until the end of the post.

Usually, I’d number a list #1, #2, #3 and so on – but in a few cases (such as a “top five” or “our three competition winners are” post), you might want to number your items #5, #4, #3, #2, #1.

If you used bullet points for your list, switch the <ul> and </ul> tags to <ol> and </ol> and each item will be numbered from #1, #2 etc.

9. Invite readers to add to the list

Once you’ve written all the items and numbered them, that’s your post finished, right? Almost! The one thing left to do is to add a few closing words below the very last item. (If you used a bullet point list with <ol> to do yours, make sure you put the closing tag </ol> before this line, otherwise it’ll look like part of the final item.)

Here’s the endings of a few list posts:

“So – what do you think? How have you increased the levels of comments on your blog (had to ask)?”10 Techniques to Get More Comments on Your Blog on Problogger

“So how do you find a good SEO? Well, leave some comments on what you think about this post, and let Skellie know you would like to hear more. If so desired, and accepted by Skellie, I’ll return with a post answering that question.”7 Signs of SEO Scams on Anywired

“What about you, did you come across any crazy registered domains in the past?”Who Spent $10 For These Domain Names? Seriously! (a list post of 8 items) on Daily Blog Tips

Ending with a question or an invitation for more items is a brilliant way to encourage comments, to get readers engaged and involved, and to help you find ideas for future blog posts.

10. Choose a great title

One more thing to do before you hit “Publish” – choose a catchy title. There’s already loads of great advice around about writing great headlines so I’ll stick to a few points specific to list posts:

  • Include the number. You can use words (“Sixteen ways to…”) or numerals (“5 great tips…”). Try to be consistent with other posts on your site, though. You might want to decide on a style rule for yourself such as:
    • Always spell out numbers in list post titles
    • Always use numerals in list post titles
    • Spell out numbers below ten, use numerals for numbers 11 and over
  • Use some “hype” words – but only if your post can live up to it. Posts like “The 10 ultimate ways to make the best chocolate cookies ever” inevitably disappoint slightly – be careful that you don’t overdo it. Equally, “10 chocolate chip cookie recipes” is a bit too bland. How about “10 favourite chocolate chip cookie recipes tried and tested”?

And, even though I’ve already explained this technique to you, I’m going to close shamelessly in asking for your comments. Do you have a great tip for writing list posts? Have you had any hugely successful lists on your blog?

Ali Hale is a freelance writer and website creator (see www.aliventures.com). She also has a blog on healthy living for busy people at www.theofficediet.com.

About Darren Rowse

Darren Rowse is the founder and editor of ProBlogger Blog Tips and Digital Photography School. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.

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Comments

  1. Hi Darren you wont believe iam currently writing a four part series on blog monetization strategies and was struck which titles to use for my posts. This post has filled the missing ingredient for my future posts. Thank you very much.

  2. Shanel Yang says:

    Wow! Terrific post, Ali! It seems you’ve followed all your own tips to a “T.” : )

  3. Man, I tell you. I love this blog. I’m always picking up something fantastic from it. Thanx for always keeping us thinking on how to improve Darren.

    Cheers
    Davin

  4. Tim Brownson says:

    That’s an incredibly well thought out post Ali! It’s almost like an e-book on what to do and what not to do.

    As somebody that has broken every rule in the book over the last 2 years using the “it’s different for ME mindset” and failed miserably, I really get that.

    I have used for too many clever titles that I laughed at, but only until the stats came through and I realized nobody else was laughing or even reading.

    There’s no need to re-design the wheel people, follow this advice and all will be well in your blogging world.

  5. Mike Nichols says:

    This post came just at the right time!

    I’m struggling over a post entitled “13 Ways to Make Yourself a World-Class Worrier” and I was stuck.

    Your post was just what I needed to get off dead center!

    Thanks!

  6. mspennylane says:

    The point about putting your best items first, second and last is something I really had never even thought of – but I will always remember it now, so thanks.

  7. That was.. INCREDIBLY helpful.. and.. that article was really helpful and it looks like you planned it out really well .. KUDOS!

  8. writer dad says:

    I know I should get around to doing a list post, but my words just don’t seem to want to fall into place that way.

  9. Ali Hale says:

    Tim – I always think your posts work well (you pull off “unconventional” and “zany” brilliantly!)

    Mike – so glad to have helped! Good luck with the post, I love the title (it sounds a little Tim-Brownson-esque…)

    Ms Penny Lane – it took a while for me to figure that one out too. It’s something that’s annoyingly obvious once you realise it!

    writer dad – You seem to be doing pretty well without them; list posts don’t suit everyone’s style.

  10. There’s no doubt that list posts are popular. I remember looking at Leo’s top 50 (at zenhabits.net) and I think everyone of them were list posts. I know he known for posting lists, though. What I like about writing list posts is that it forces you to be specific and concise in your writing. I think a lot of people think in more of a list format, so reading information that way just feels more natural.

  11. joe says:

    How would one keep the key words strong in a list to maximize that sort of thing?

  12. axel g says:

    Great post Ali!

    Well written and featuring many many good pointers…

  13. se7en says:

    Thank-you Problogger, yet another great article. I am new at blogging and my blog is really all about lists. Talk about timing!!! I really needed to read this and keep it open on my desk top while I write.

    Thanks again for a brilliant blog with heaps of help for a non-techie blogger.

  14. Bonie says:

    wew great complete article… just want to save it :D

  15. Michael says:

    Nice list it does seem that when I am reading a feed lists usuallly get me to click after all what 19-30 yr old could resist a titles like the hottest models all time

  16. MYLN says:

    Lists is the only way to make people read something. If you have a huge amount of text most probably nobody will pay attention to it.
    In our blog we have posts that state the number of items in the list i.e. “30 Tips for better health” and posts that do not have the number in the title i.e “Benefits of exercise”. Although it is a new blog,statistics so far show that posts with the list items in the title get far more views than others.

    Thanks again Darren for a first class post!

  17. It seems like the best way to go these days is 80/20 as far as list vs non-list posts. Maybe even 90/10. You need a few non-listers here and there to mix it up but there’s just no doubt that if you want the best bank for your buck with your posts you’ve got to go the list rout.

  18. wow good job..nice tips..i need to make a list post

    http://www.TheBusinessOfMyBusiness.blogspot.com

  19. Roschelle says:

    Great ideas as usual and thanks for sharing. I love utilizing the “list” method. I didn’t realize when I first started blogging on blogger that this was the way people populated their menu bar across the top of their blog. Since finding out this paramount piece of information, I’ve been able to post specific topics and list them where people won’t have to search and search through tons of other posts to find them

  20. Frugal Dad says:

    My most popular post to date is a “75 Tip” post I put together on ways to save/money in a rough economy. I took my time writing it (over a couple weeks) and published on a Monday morning. The tough thing with stringing out a post over that many days was staying consistent with the style, and it took quite a bit of editing to make it look seamless to readers.

  21. @Frugal Dad: WOW, a 75 tipper! I could see how that would be hard to keep the content consistent. But that’s a great topic so I could see how it would be popular. It does seem, though, that you get back what you put into a post. And if you just throw it together you can’t expect a good response.

  22. jilly says:

    I love making and reading lists. Your article, as usual, was extremely readable and personable. And, of course, writing a list post about making list posts was genius. :-)

  23. BusyBlogging says:

    Whenever I write long list posts, I always come out with the ideas in several sessions instead of sitting somewhere and trying to think of the whole list all at once.

    Once I get all the ideas, I delete the ones that are similar or don’t make sense.

    I also don’t try to think of how many ideas to come up with ahead of time. If it’s 29, then it’s 29. If I can think of 15, then it’s 15. I don’t limit myself nor do I force myself to come up with a number.

    It seems to me that well thought out ideas are better than hitting a big number (even though having a big number of ideas in the post title might attract more readers clicking through).

  24. Dan Mihaliak says:

    Really good post. Enjoyable to read and full of good ideas. I especially enjoyed number 6 and expect to use that information soon.

  25. PC says:

    Very good post. Thanks a lot. Will work on these things.

  26. Robin Good says:

    Excellent post indeed!

    If you are a pro and want to find out more about the information design aspects of preparing an effective list post for web publication give a look to:

    How To Format Big Long Lists – http://tinyurl.com/5wrgcm

    Thanks Darren for your great content

  27. Evelyn Lim says:

    I read Tim’s comments with interest and looking at the stats of my own blog, I must agree. List posts generally do better!

  28. Max Forlani says:

    Great post Darren.The only thing I missed a bit: is there a maximum amount of lines you can use to make the intro to the list?

    I mean, can you first write some (introduction) text or is it better to keep that to a strict minimum so readers immediatedly notice the real list?

    Cheers,
    Max

  29. Fotografo says:

    As usal interesting content.
    Thanks a lot.

  30. Ali Hale says:

    Hey Max,

    I try to keep the introduction to no more than a paragraph, maybe 3-4 sentences at most. I’d say it’s particularly crucial that the start of the list appears above the fold, so the reader can see it before scrolling down.

    It also depends on the length of the list: a list of 100+ resources could probably have a fairly length introduction (eg. explaining how the items were chosen) but a list of 3 or 4 items might look a bit odd if the introduction was nearly as long as the list!

    Ali

  31. Aira Bongco says:

    Hello Darren,

    My name is Aira and I’m a marketing researcher. I just recently took an interest in blogging and I can say I am still a complete newbie at it. This post really gave me a lot of information on how to craft a list post. I went out right away and made some posts to my site to practice. Thanks a lot.

    Aira.

  32. Kirk Warren says:

    I do a top 10 list every week on one of my blogs and I don’t include numbers in it for the specific reason I hate adding arbitrary orders of importance to my lists, especially when it comes to ’10 best books’ or ’10 best writers’ type lists.

    It typically just leads to people fighting over ‘oh thats so much better then #5, it should have easily been #4′ and so on instead of actually discussing their top 10 or the ones I list.

  33. amirulcyber says:

    Great post Darren

    Good written and featuring many many good pointers…

  34. Doug C. says:

    I had an idea for a list type post so I tried it with My 21 Favorite Photoshop Tips just to see what effect it would have. I listed twenty-one shortcuts that I always use myself in Photoshop, numbered them, and organized them into categories. The result: not much.

    Oh well, it was worth a shot.

  35. Great information, I love lists, using them and publishing them!

  36. Brad V. says:

    Great post! My lists posts are usually the ones that become the most popular (but not always). They are fun to write and I often get positive feedback when I do write a list post.

    With that said, list posts are also great to read. I read a lot of blogs and many times all those posts start to run together. A list post “breaks things up” a little and can give a lot of detailed content in a highly organized fashion!

    Keep up the good work!

  37. blogversary says:

    I love lists. The magazine industry takes full advantage of this technique.

  38. amirulcyber says:

    Me too Blogversary.i love list as well.we have same thought.

  39. amirulcyber says:

    to Robin Good:

    thanks for sharing the information.i like it.

  40. Winston says:

    Some nice thoughts in their. Ive a particular interest in lists having written a “hobby” site around the idea of allowing people to publish and vote on lists. It’s actually quite a common idea but with limitless potential listing subjects it’s fun to work on. My problem has always been actually getting down to write content – I enjoy coding the site too much ;)!

  41. Lee says:

    LOL reading this post is a little ironic for me actually because this very week I’ve wrapped up my regular Friday Top Five series which I did for three months or so.

    I’m going to still do my list posts but instead of a scheduled weekly series I’m going to do them all over the place now.

    I just started to feel a little stifled with.having to do that post every Thursday night but it was a good one to do in advance!

  42. gamermk says:

    It’s important to note that the less items that are in your list the stronger those points have to stand. ie. if you have 3 strong items don’t throw in a weak 4th just cause, but if you have 30 strong items a weak 31st will largely be lost in the shuffle

    Lists should never span multiple pages and never, ever give less than you say you’ll give. ie. 5 ways to do so-and-so then only write 4

  43. Sandra says:

    I love this post because I have a blog devoted to lists of eight reasons for different topics. Thanks for all the great advice!

  44. Ravi says:

    A great post for our sites to make it better. Thanks for making this great posts.

  45. Frank Gil says:

    Great list, I will write a list post soon following the guide.

  46. beach resort says:

    I found it interesting, and for sure its going to help my blog.

  47. Steve says:

    Great post – you can use these exact same techniques for article marketing too, readers in general tend to like the list format, and a format like this tends to make them easier to write too as you’re following a set structure.

  48. Jack says:

    I have a list of my own. ;)

    Top 5 Reasons Why Lists Must Die!
    http://www.room237origins.com/top-5-reasons-why-lists-must-die.html

  49. Celix44 says:

    The magazine industry takes full advantage of this technique.
    thanks

  50. Kevin says:

    Well, Darren has asked us to provide a link to our blog lists so here goes – http://kevincumbria.wordpress.com/

    Be gentle with me :-)