Conventionally, an article should have a beginning, middle and end, a clear narrative flow throughout, and should present an issue or argument that is discussed and resolved as the piece goes on. Online writing, however, has thrown away the rulebook to an extent, and favoured a style more suited to how producers want to write, and how many of their readers want to read.
Popular culture sites like BuzzFeed, Cracked, and WhatCulture have largely shunned the traditional style of article writing, instead presenting their articles as lists, or ‘listicles’ as they are sometimes known. The success of this style of writing has been such that it’s often mimicked by more professionally focused sites and industry specific blogs. In fact, even the BBC has taken up the technique, with its daily “Five things you need to know” about COVID-19 and other subjects.
So, why is this style so popular? Let’s look at some reasons:
Easier and quicker for the writer
As a content writer, the list style of writing allows you to simply present ideas and spend less time on structure and the formulation of an argument. Once you have decided upon the theme of your article, the points you want to make and the number of said points, the structure is more or less there for you – although you should still introduce and conclude your piece, rather than just bash it out as a numbered list.
Some analysts have also noted that lists offer a good way of “recycling” content and presenting something you’ve already written in a new light. This saves you time and is not necessary a boring and repetitive technique if done carefully. We’ve written before on how to reuse content.
Lists and top tips are a great format for including images, YouTube clips and tweets too, turning your article into an engaging mixed-media piece.
Enjoyed by readers
On a computer screen or mobile device, we don’t tend to read in the same way as we do with printed books and magazines. We tend to prefer reading in bite-sized chunks – something Google appears to be trying to address with its latest WordPress plugin.
Online readers are often time-poor, and might be reading articles while on the train, waiting for a meeting, or in a second tab of their browser while working on another task. Lists can be read and understood quickly, which is why many news websites put together a ‘daily digest’ piece that summarises five or six of the biggest stories of the day in no more than a paragraph, often including a link to the full report of the story for those who want to learn more.
We also enjoy two-way communication online. Lists and tips present an opportunity for readers to agree or disagree with the choices, and add one or two of their own.
Five top tips on ‘top tips’ articles
Yes, why not? Here are five ways you can make sure your ‘top tips’ articles hit the mark:
1. As we mentioned, you should still always give your tips an intro and conclusion. It doesn’t have to be War and Peace, and it should be kept fairly short so that the reader doesn’t lose interest before getting to the real substance. Just a sentence or two will do – it shows that you’re still making an effort to adhere to the traditional style of writing and are not just starting your piece with point #1 (which comes across as lazy) and finishing it with your final point (which seems abrupt).
2. Include images and video if appropriate. Visual content tends to be more engaging, and if you share it on Facebook or Twitter, the site should pull images through into your post, helping it stand out on other people’s newsfeeds.
3. When sharing on social media, provide a teaser to encourage clickthrough rates. Common strategies include sentences like “Number 4 is a classic” or “You won’t believe number 9!”
4. Some content writers suggest avoiding round numbers like 5 or 10 when compiling lists. A scroll down the homepage of BuzzFeed will often reveal lists of 14, 17 or 32. The science behind this is up for debate, but it may simply be that these unusual quantities stand out as a break from the norm of 5, 10 and 20. It can also give the impression that you’re being more specific and not stretching or limiting your list to meet a round number – in the preface to a book I own called ‘Fear of Music: The Greatest 261 Albums Since Punk and Disco’, writer Garry Mulholland explains that he settled upon that number simply because he made a list of every album he wanted to recommend and that was how many he came up with.
5. Make sure you welcome comments. Ask viewers if they agree, or if they have any of their own to suggest. They might do this either in the comments section of your site, or on Facebook or Twitter.
If you want your ‘top tips’ articles to be tip-top, speak to us as Engage Web today.