My job is to make writing more palatable (and delicious!) for the online reader, and I see a lot of lists.
As an editor and avid consumer of pop culture, I have a bone to pick with the top ten list. That’s right, Top 10, I call you out.
Wherever I go, there they are. Much like cockroaches or golden arches, top ten lists are everywhere. I see them on late-night talk shows, in The New Yorker, and on bathroom walls. I’ve even seen top ten lists of the best top ten lists. Sure, sometimes it's simply unavoidable, and I must admit that I've fallen under the spell a few times (here, for example!), but every time I do, I have to question my motives.
When I say that I probably read at least ten top ten lists a day, I may be exaggerating in order to kowtow to the magical number ten, but this is just one of the reasons to avoid it. Here are a few other reasons to steer clear.
10. It’s cliché.
Face it: The number 10 is so overdone, it’s burnt. Some things can be repeated until they lose their meaning. That dead horse has been beaten so long and hard it looks like a pile of kibble. The only reason to Google "top ten list of baby names" is to find out which names to avoid, right? Everyone else is doing it, and that should be reason enough for us all to try something different.
9. It’s a lie.
Sometimes, a list is based on measurable, qualitative facts, but usually it's just a random collection of ideas that appropriate respectability by declaring themselves the best: Top! Most! Biggest! Awesomest! This list you are reading is just a bunch of my ideas, but the words "Top Ten" might give you the impression that I have weighed, rated, or polled each idea. I haven't. I'm just spouting off here. So to call something "Top Ten" makes it sound disingenuous from the start.
8. It hijacks your voice.
If you compare this article with other things I’ve written, you’ll see that the tone I use here is different from what I usually sound like. That’s because in order to fit into the list format, a voice must conform to a list-y cadence. Toni Morrison could make a grocery list sound like poetry, but I'm not Toni Morrison. I'm expected to adhere to a certain tone in my list, which is always chirpy, sassy, entertaining, and wry. I'm not supposed to digress from this clipped enthusiasm. A list is no place to expand ideas, go off on personal tangents, show off your vocabulary, or dig deep. In a listicle, you can be a smart-ass but not too smart. You can embrace sarcasm and use lots of exclamation points!!! You can almost hear a Katy Perry song playing in the background. I am fighting the urge to insert an emoticon here.
7. It's pandering.
Pander: "To gratify or indulge (an immoral or distasteful desire, need, or habit)."
Tabloids pander to people's baser instincts with their fleshy photos and lurid headlines, and top tens do the same. A list is eye candy, as provocative as a crop top. For readers, the trend is toward easy, saturated, fast-food thoughts that can be enjoyed on the road. Our baser desires as writers are to get as much attention as we can. Lists are quick, click-baity ways to rattle that cage.
6. It’s too easy.
Lists are are to bloggers what wheelchairs are to lazy people. If the list is the only way you can write, then maybe it’s better than nothing, but if you can think of another approach, please exercise that muscle, too.
Besides, aren't we getting tired of easy, breezy writing? Don't we want something a little more substantial?
In the end, it's simple: Your readers probably want more than ten.
5. It oversimplifies.
Complicated topics are chopped into awkward, uniform, bite-sized pieces to make them more palatable. Brevity is rewarded, depth is punished, and nuance is lost.
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4. It promotes lazy habits.
Reading (or writing) a list is like reading (or writing) the CliffsNotes instead of the novel. They're great for skimmers, copy-pasters, and those who don't want to think too hard about things like structure, but after awhile, we may lose the ability to do anything more than top ten. It's like an able-bodied person who parks in a handicap zone so often he loses his ability to walk long distances. A list of 39 items? That's waaaay too long, man. Why not imagine your own way to express yourself? Long paragraphs give me a headache. Research is hard. Can't you just give me a summary? There are just too many words.
3. It kills creativity.
If all our ideas come in the same ten-part box, then how long will it take for those thoughts to conform to the limitations of their containers? What slippery ideas, unusual perspectives, wriggling innovations, and shades of gray are lost?
2. It conveys a false hierarchy.
On a list, you're supposed to start with 10 and end with one, and each item is supposed to get progressively more important (or funny, or stupid, or better quality, depending on what you promised in your title). The number-one spot is supposedly reserved for the toppest, mostest of whatever you're talking about. Sometimes this works naturally, but usually the items on the list are all about the same, or the difference is negligible, and so their relative importance is forced by their numbers.
1. It requires repetition, truncation, filler, and fluff.
In order to stuff what you have to say into a list of ten items, chances are you'll have to either cut something out or repeat yourself. I only had nine reasons, but now I have to add another because nine isn't as catchy as ten.
Will a Top 10 List Help With SEO?
Search engine optimization (SEO) is the attempt to increase organic traffic by doing things to rank higher on the page in a search result (SERP). Some might believe that "top ten" is something readers want to see, but people probably aren't searching for it.
For example, I typed "top ten gifts for teenage girl" and none, not one of the results on the first page mentioned "top ten" in its title. No matter what number searchers specify, Google disregards the number and focuses on delivering lists of gifts instead.
Separately or together, the words "top" and "ten" perhaps narrow the search by returning fewer results, but both end up with basically the same top results.
So the phrase "top ten" doesn't matter. The words are as insignificant as fluff, and invoking the phrase is not unlike keyword stuffing, where you repeat your topic over and over hoping to attract attention like a fishmonger yelling "fresh fish!" until his larynx dries up. Yes, it's annoying. Yes, it's a dated and awkward grab for attention, one that even top list-serving sites, like Buzzfeed, eschew.
What to Do Instead of Writing a List:
- Use other numbers. If you must use a numbered list, then at least let it add up to a natural or odd digit. Don't force your ideas to conform to their numbers!
- Expand your understanding of the topic. There are thousands of other ways to think about and organize your thoughts. Read widely to get a wide sampling of the possibilities for how to frame your topic.
- Use enticing words instead. If you're looking for subtitles that pull readers in, try a catchy word or phrase instead of a number. Use language that pops and sizzles. Questions are a good way of intriguing readers. Even interesting/informative photographs separating one thought from the next might be preferable to a straight list of numbers.
- Brainstorm first. Just get all your ideas "on the page" before you begin, then think of creative ways to pull readers in instead of relying on the old list-crutch. Let yourself go off on tangents. Let your ideas unfold like complicated origami.
- Maybe it's time to consider a different kind of writing. Instead of starting with numbers (thereby limiting yourself in terms of tone and depth), perhaps it's time to consider working your material into an essay or a longer piece that includes research, anecdote, history, comparison, tangential explorations, or truth.
- Trust your readers to follow your lead. They may be shocked and confused at first, but if you write well, they will follow.
Rebel! Break the mold! Toss those numbers and go off-roading in the wide open landscape of prose!
What do you think?
Antonio on October 08, 2019:
Excellent, I love this oxymoron and it points out the flaws of a top ten list by incorporating its flaws, giving the format a taste of it's own medicine, while it won't make any significant impact on the industry, it does symbolize that not all hope is lost.
Chris on March 08, 2018:
Top 10 lists suck. I love the fact you call out most issues.
Alison on November 03, 2016:
Chirpy, sassy, entertaining, and wry!