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Moderation in all Lists

Any of you that are familiar with Cracked will be familiar with the list format: almost every article on Cracked is titled with the “# Adjective Noun” formula.

I will (grudgingly) admit that I do read Cracked daily.  At the very least it provides me with a few minutes of amusement, at very best DOB (who I maintain is a genius) provides me with something worthy of linking on my Facebook.

Cracked isn’t the only site guilty of using (or, quite possibly, abusing) the list format.  It has become ubiquitous to the internet.  Huffington Post is saturated with photo posts that are the visual equivalent of the list format. 

For the Writer

I’ll admit now that you will, at some point, see a list-format article from me.  The fact is that they are, for the most part, easier to write.  As a collection of a few related points, there is no real need to tie the points together.  Each point on the list can stand alone with little to no actual reference to previous points.

This makes writing a list article that much easier.  The overarching theme is developed in the title, so there is no need to really bother to touch it beyond individual points that play into that topic.  Once the author thinks of a few points that fit into the theme, the only real step beyond that is to write a short “mini-article” for each point on the list.

For the vast majority of us that have written a paper for school it should come as little surprise that one of the hardest parts of a paper is trying to tie together each individual point.  With the list, this hassle is cut out and replaced with a jarring twist to the next point.  (To be fair to Cracked, they often tie together their points fairly well, and do show that little extra bit of effort here and there.)

To wit, I often split up my articles based upon bolded headings.  I do this for a few reasons, but one is that it splits the article conceptually into larger ideas and helps me to organize this particular point.  The list format is the logical and extreme continuation of this: movement beyond organized headings into an almost outline-like format.

The other issue is that the writer has to put in less effort to each point in the list.  The overall length of a list article may end up being the same as a full-length one, but it’s split up amongst many topics.  It says a little about a lot of things, not vice versa—as a full article or post.  This means that the writer has to do less research or, in many cases, give less thought to each point.

Look at my last post about House.  The post started as a longer, list-format entry.  I had about 2 pages written about four shows and was relatively happy with the outcome.  Until, of course, I realized I had a lot more to say about House.

That said, some of the other parts of the list (for example, Dead Like Me) may never see a full-length article, solely because I don’t have enough to say about it right now.  If I were to complete the “Shows That Irk Me” post about Dead Like Me, I will undoubtedly have to think a lot harder to fill it up.  So the question becomes, was it worth it to expand my House article at the expense of the rest of the entries?

For the Reader

The real impact of the list format, I feel, is that effect it has upon the reader of the article.

Most of the articles I write are not much longer than two single-spaced pages in Microsoft Word.  Yet, numerous readers (I use the word “numerous” liberally) have commented on the length of my articles.  The problem is that the internet is a fast-paced medium that expects almost no form of extended attention.  To spend even ten minutes reading an article is a stretch for many people. This is, of course, precisely why the list format has found such common usage on the internet. It allows the reader one particular luxury that is totally unique to the list format.

When I read Cracked, I would estimate that I actually read about 40% of the full length of any given article.  And what is the reason for this?  I don’t have to read the whole thing to get the point. In a list of six items, the heading on each item lets me know exactly what I’m about to read about.  I can read the summary of an entry on the list, decide if it appeals to me, and proceed as appropriate.  If I’m not totally sure, I can begin to skim the actual entry on the list in order to determine if I want to finish it up.  It’s not only convenient, but helps to avoid content that doesn’t interest me.

If I were to skip 60% of a book or article, I would likely come away with only the vaguest notion of what it was about.  Ask me for a summary and you may get sub-Sparknotes quality summaries. So the reader is getting more out of the list article for less time spent in reading it.

This is precisely why the list excels on the internet: content is so vast and open with—generally—a lower amount of quality-control than printed formats that one has to be careful about the content he reads.

But Is It Worth It?

Because I like to write articles that are a fuller-length, I’ve probably got a vested interest in arguing that no, it is not worth it. There are still serious reasons to wonder at the trend the internet has taken toward the abbreviated, list-based format.

Take my tendency to skim the articles on Cracked as an example.  The question is on the direction of causality in this particular situation.  It is very possible that I only skim the Cracked articles because they are in a list format and, in fact, make it so easy for me to do so.

To this end, I would use SomethingAwful.com as my argument against the list format.  Their articles are full-length, usually spreading across two or three pages.  When I read a Something Awful article, I read the whole thing, regardless of if I decide halfway through that I’m not all that interested.  The counter-argument could be made that SA has a better writing staff, (they do, mostly) and as such, the articles are better.  Apples to oranges, you say.  Look at Daniel O’Brien’s articles on Cracked.  Any article he posts, no matter length, gets my full attention.

I would also argue the ease of writing a list—in comparison to a well-written, full-length article or post—isn’t totally worth it.  Typically, a challenge is more interesting for the writer and, when a writer is pushed to write better, the reader ends up winning.  Easy is boring.

Obviously I’m not arguing the invariable truth of this statement.  Look at “Smoke on the Water.”  That song has a riff so easy I can play it.  Yet it’s still a good song.  But “Mary Had a Little Lamb” is also absurdly easy to play and I doubt anybody would pay to see zombie-Hendrix play that.  (Unless, of course, he completely rewrote it and turned it into something challenging to play and exciting to see played.)

Which is precisely my point regarding the list format.  I don’t write this blog as a cry for attention or to see how many views I can get (though more views is pretty cool), but rather to express opinions and practice writing.  I could fill this blog with a series of half-baked lists in a week, or I could write fewer articles with a lot more thought put into them.  The part of me that likes to write also enjoys the challenges associated with writing a full-length post.

So Am I Actually Against the List?

I’ve been pretty hard on both Cracked and the list article.  That said, I still feel they have their place on the internet.  There is a huge argument to be made for being concise, and list formats are precisely that.  And despite the fact that list formats create the tendency to skim, the internet is still a medium that caters to short attention spans, and the list format is little more than a logical extension of that tendency.

Overall, then, I’d say I’m in favor of the list format in moderation.  I will * undoubtedly post lists in the life of this blog.  Sometimes, that is just the best way to express an idea.  But at the same time, Cracked (and sites like it) playing to the list format draws out the lowest common denominator of internet readership, and the comment section on the site alone is enough to prove that particular point.   The list format, when overused, could easily lead to an audience conditioned to expect brevity from you, and a full-length article may seem overkill to that readership.

So the question is, how many of you read Cracked?  And am I right to say that the list format causes you to skim?  The bigger question: would you read more of what I have to say more often if I exclusively posted lists?

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Categories: Internet
  1. jdwolfe
    August 2, 2010 at 8:54 pm

    I’ve personally found that what you say about list formats, and automatically skimming them, isn’t always true. At least not with the articles that have some form of substance and body to them. I find joy in fully reading an article, though I feel I’m likely just an anomaly in a world of people constantly in a rush to do things quickly.

    Now I’ll say that I’ve never even heard of cracked until reading about it in this article (Go ahead. Shun me.) but I have come across articles and writing of similar format – Some with detail and substance to them, others that had been nothing more than one or two lines per point. Needless to say, I found the ones that actually had some thought in them more interesting and more likely to keep me drawn in to the last sentence, much like your articles so far have done. Maybe I’m just a guy who likes quantity, who knows. But then, quantity does play some role in quality when it comes to writing, and vice versa.

    To answer your last question, I’d have to say your current articles are more likely to draw me in than exclusively posted links. However, using a variety of styles would also be beneficial to yourself (Or so I’ve been told), since it will train you to think in different ways.

    That would be my two cents worth. Enjoy.

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