In Defense of Lists: Why Readers Prefer Bulleted Posts

Apparently without realizing it I’ve become known for writing list posts. It’s not so surprising: I’ve always been a list-maker, it’s just my nature.

Writing articles with lists, I think, goes back to my newspaper days, when we were trained in the USA Today philosophy of breaking up long stories with boxes of information and bulleted lists that made things easier to read.

While I’m not a huge fan of USA Today, there is something to the idea of highlighting important information for readers in a hurry.

However, I’ve been criticized for list posts, by bloggers I respect. They aren’t fans of the “5 Ways to ….” posts, and I can understand that. Those kinds of posts can be overdone.

I’d like to make a case for list posts, though, to present the ideas behind them and why they’re a good way to present information to your blog’s readers.

And to do that, I’m going to present it in a list!

1. Readers are in a hurry. Sure, it would be nice to spend some quality time with each post, perhaps read it on a lazy Sunday morning when the neighbors are at church, as you smoke your pipe.

However, the reality is that most of us read through a large number of posts in a limited amount of time. We want to be able to get to the information we want, quickly. Lists help the reader do that, by highlighting the main points.

You can complain all you want about lists, but the bottom line is that they make things easier on the reader. And if you don’t make the reader’s concerns your most important concern on your blog, you will soon lose the readers. Put your readers first.

2. It crystallizes your main points. Too many posts end up rambling about various topics, without forcefully stating their main points. It leaves the reader confused, and is often a waste of time.

Sure, it’s very possible to write a well thought out post without using a list, but the list forces you to understand the main points of your post, and to stay on point. That’s a good thing in my opinion.

3. It’s concise. Lists say in a few words what would ordinarily be said in many. They eliminate the need for transitional sentences and segues.

They present a lot of information in a small amount of space, and conciseness is one of the foundations of good writing.

4. List headlines are informative.
Sure, the “5 Ways to …” headline might be a bit trite, but it’s used so often because it’s effective.

It communicates in a few words exactly what the reader needs to know. Unlike the more vague titles such as “The Virtues of a Mac” or “On Blogging”.

The list headline tells you

1) what the post will teach you;

2) that the post is showing you how to do something useful;

3) that the post is in an easily read list form; and

4) the exact number of items in the list. Now, you might argue that the last item isn’t necessary, but then you’d be arguing for providing the reader with less information rather than more. And again, you should put your reader first.

5. It’s useful. Many posts talk about a subject, but don’t tell the readers how to take action, how to accomplish what’s being talked about.

That’s not terribly useful to most people. “Fine,” they say, “good points. But how do I implement them?”

The list post, however, is made up of practical steps or tips. At least, the ones I write try to be.

And that’s much more useful to the reader — they not only make their point, but tell you how to take action. Practical advice on implementing it in your life.

About Leo Babauta

Leo Babauta is the author of The Power of Less and the creator and blogger at Zen Habits — one of the top productivity and simplicity blogs on the Internet.

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