23 Ways to Avoid Listicles

23 fishhooks from the ‘History of Inventions’ at the Smithsonian Institution

Okay, I admit it. I used a linkbaited, listicle-promising title to attract your attention and tempt you to tap through to this partially disguised manifesto. It worked, and here you are with great expectations (perhaps) on how to avoid the very thing that brought you in.

I feel okay about doing it — using a fishhook device — because my goal is to persuade people to shy away from linkbait and listicles in both writing and reading. Before we begin, let’s be sure we are on the same page as to what the terms mean.

Linkbait — or ‘clickbait’, as some web marketers might refer to it — is a sensational title written in a way to generate enough curiosity for people to open (and ideally share) the content contained within. You see them all the time, particularly with online pop culture news media channels that offer titles like “What you don’t know about this everyday item might surprise you” and “9 life changes you can make right now to impress your friends”.

Listicles — a mash-up of ‘list’ and ‘articles’ — is a compressed writing style structured on lists and fleshed-out with a just enough explanatory content to somehow qualify as an article. Fashion publications write them best: “7 new designers you need to know” and “210+ new ways to look fabulous” and “50 ways to leave your lover (and get yourself free)”, although that last one might be a song by Paul Simon.

Before we consider how to avoid these two writing devices, let’s acknowledge that they are designed to capture attention. With all the noise in our modern, multimedia-imbued world, it is no wonder that publishers, marketers, and advertisers have had to resort to linkbait and listicles to get eyes on pages.

I was tempted to get a statistic from a website entitled “31 advertising statistics to know in 2019”, but instead I found a professionally-written Forbes article that says that the average North American is exposed to 5,000 to 10,000 ads per day, depending on commute, amount of time on the web, how much broadcasting they consume (radio and television), and how often they’re on social media. 50 years ago, in the 1970s, that number was 500 ads per day.

I understand why writers want their titles to stand out in a mass of messages. However, as a reader I get insulted when I see a headline that appeals to my insecurities, I feel cheated when a link tricks me, and vexed when the content of a page reads differently from the title promised — particularly when social and political agendas polarize different sides of an issue.

We can do better, and here’s how.

First, all writers have the capacity to write captivating titles without the use of linkbait. While headlines can be a bit of an art — I have, at times, spent as much time composing a title than I have spent writing an article — it is an immensely rewarding experience to condense the theme and import of an entire treatise into five or six words.

Second, articles usually have a number of points to make or at least a number of supporting facts to bring a single point home, which is why we use outlines to frame out the content. The key is to combine multiple points into cohesive bundles that make sense in prose. Listicles are purposefully fragmented, even when they are done well.

And finally, link the paragraphs — or ‘thought blocks’, as I like to call them — into a flow that makes sense to the reader. I consider this the narrative of the article, and as storytelling animals we are fine-tuned to appreciate a well-structured anecdote with a beginning and an end and enough context in the middle to be captivating.

There you have it: not 23 ways to avoid listicles as promised, but 2 to 3 tips for how to write without contrivance. Join me in my campaign to reduce linkbait and listicles: write well and shun the titles that use them. If enough of us don’t bite baited hooks, perhaps there will be a time when we can enjoy better quality headlines in the future.

I write about how small achievable changes to everyday habits can have bigger global impact.