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He’s Making a List

Just like that jolly old elf and a certain late-night talk show host, people love lists. In fact, every morning I begin my day by making a list of things to do. But despite a personal and cultural imperative to list things, I have a growing love/hate relationship with lists.

As any longtime reader of newspapers and magazines knows (insert “old media” jokes here), ’tis the season of year-end lists – from New Year’s resolutions to best movies, music, or recipes. Despite the temptation to cynically attribute this tradition to a writers’ desire to take it easy during the holidays, since most of these stories can be finished well in advance of publication, the source of my growing unease lies elsewhere.

What’s your motivation?

With the multitude of new voices providing commentary via blogs, Twitter feeds, and Facebook postings, it should come as no surprise that the number and frequency of lists has exploded as well. What is Google, after all, if not an expansive list of online content?

Used effectively, a list takes infinite possibility and orders it into a simpler, usable form. But unlike grocery lists or instructions on how to assemble your child’s new Lego set, most published lists serve a less utilitarian purpose. They’re more like junk food – a short-term pleasure.

My disdain for this trend stems from the suspicion that people are altering the way they write simply to get noticed. To me, this fundamentally changes the nature of the task. Are you looking out for your best interests? Or your readers’?

I get it. A headline that promises “The 5 Best Top 10 Lists” tells the reader: “This isn’t War and Peace. I’m not asking for a huge investment of your time and attention.” But that’s also the problem: We’re rarely getting any new insights – any nutrition – here.

Looking back

Most lists summarize the past without providing any additional context. They exist more as a collection of observations by an interested bystander than as the work of an active participant. The best lists take information and reveal something we didn’t know, synthesizing disparate thoughts and experience into concise and insightful conclusions or predictions.

Just as good advertising is the fastest way to kill a bad product, poor writing is the quickest way to lose your audience. If your writing is interesting or relevant or useful, it doesn’t matter what format it comes in.

Related Content:

Interview with Umberto Eco: “We Like Lists Because We Don’t Want to Die.”

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