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:
- FreelanceSwitch, ten list posts out of ten most popular (100%)
- Daily Blog Tips, ten list posts out of fifteen most popular (67%)
- Copyblogger, six list posts out of ten most popular (60%).
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:
- Tips on improving an aspect of your life (7 Tips to Develop the Habit of Daily Exercise)
- Best websites or blogs on a certain topic (Top 25 blogs about blogging)
- Step-by-step instructions on how to do something (3 Steps to Productivity)
- Most famous people (films, books, etc) in your field (NxE’s Fifty Most Influential ‘Female’ Bloggers)
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:
- 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?