Wait – what? The anatomy of a great list post? What’s this all about? Well a few weeks ago I published an article titled “The Anatomy of a Great Tutorial” in which I presented an outline of some of the elements that I think best exemplify a really great instructional post.
I wrote that article with the hope of making it the first in a series of articles, and what you’re reading now is the second in that series.
And yes, it’s also all about what makes a great list post.
As some readers may be aware, there are some very strong feeling about list posts in the community these days – and for good reason. Sometimes I look at certain RSS and news feeds, or at some of the stuff that gets passed around on Twitter and it just makes me want to scream in frustration. But, as much as I can get frustrated with all the lists (and especially with lists of lists), I try to keep and open mind and remind myself that not all list-based articles are bad.
In fact, there are some really great list posts out there. So, in this article, I want to look at some of the key elements that I think separate the lists that make me want to scream in frustration from those that actually find their way into my bookmarks.
A Worthy Subject
There is no doubt that list posts are articles, and like any good article, the foundation for success is always a good subject. The first step is always to come up with something that people want to read about. Just because you can put together a collection of websites that have pink flowers in their footer doesn’t mean that you should.
[Note: I just made that up. I have no idea if there are enough websites that feature pink flowers in their footers to actually compile a complete list. Hopefully, you get the point of the example though.]
So, when generating ideas for your next list post, try to make sure that it’s something that readers will be genuinely interested in.
For instance, one list post that I would be really, really interested in seeing would be a collection of websites that actually make intelligent and meaningful use of animated GIFs to add a subtle touch to a design. Too often, I think that people stereotype animated GIFs and think of all those really horrible rotating at symbols (@), sword wielding Diablo sprites or dancing, bikini-glad ladies. However, sites like Denise Chandler‘s actually demonstrate how animated GIFs can be used in interesting ways.
A list post that collected a number of fresh uses of animated GIFs could turn into a very strong and interesting article that could motivate readers and further stimulate creativity. In my books, any article that can accomplish this kind of intellectual stimulation is a good one.
In the vast majority of cases, examples make up the backbone of the entire list post. After all, a list post isn’t much good without the examples that actually make up the list itself. That being said, however, the quality of the examples is incredibly important. Even the best idea for a list post will fall flat on its face without good examples.
But what makes a good example? There are a number of things you could consider:
- Uniqueness – is the example something that we’ve all seen before, or something fresh and unique that may really interest your readers?
- Quality – this is especially important if your title suggests that your list includes all the best examples of something. I hate looking at a post titled something like “20 Best WordPress Themes for Authors”, only to find it full of second or third rate material.
- Relevance – are your examples actually reflecting what you say they are? Sometimes, I think that we can start filling up our lists with examples that don’t entirely fit, just for the sake of inflating it a bit. I think, however, that it would be far better to have fewer highly relevant examples than a large number of less relevant examples that simply dilute the overall purpose of the article.
Of course, the definition of a good example is certainly going to vary from list post to list post, depending on the subject of the article. Regardless, however, any good list will pay particular attention to the quality of its examples.
A Reasonable Number
One of the tell-tale signs of any list post is probably the presence of some kind of number at the beginning of the title. Just look at the most recent list post here on SpyreStudios: “30 Awesome Custom Tumblr Blog Designs.” The name tells you exactly what the list will feature, and the number of examples that you can expect to see.
This is a pretty standard feature of most list posts these days, and as such is probably something worth considering here. I think that there are two very important things to consider when choosing numbers for your titles.
First, be reasonable. In the vast majority of cases, there is really no need to feature 150 examples of some particular trend or design element on various websites. Only a handful of very dedicated people will actually take the time to look at them all in detail. Plus, after the first 20, 30 or (at the most) 50 examples, there probably won’t be anything all that unique about the examples anymore.
So, in most cases, try to keep your lists to a smaller number by focusing only on the absolute best examples you can find. This will also have the added benefit of saving you some bandwidth, and your readers some time.
Also, be honest! I’ve come across far too many list posts with titles that are somewhat misleading – even if it is somewhat unintentional. For instance, though having 31 examples in a list entitled “30+ Clever Logos” is technically accurate, that little plus sign tends to cannot more than just on extra example. In my view, its far better to just come out and say “31 Clever Logos” rather than being somewhat more obscure.
Also, I am always sorely disappointed with a list that is titled “1001 Business Icons” only to find out that it just contains a list of different lists of business icons, which all add up to the total 1001. Again, strictly speaking the title is accurate, but when I come across these kinds of posts I very often feel as though they are not delivering directly on their promise – especially since many of the listed lists will actually contain the same icons, a little fact which tends to completely throw off the count.
Basically, just avoid anything that can be inaccurate or misleading. Also, if, for whatever reason, you cannot establish an exact count, the leave the number out entirely and devise some other, interesting title. Actually, you may even want to consider coming with with an different and interesting title anyhow.
Now, while a strong subject, good examples and a reasonable number can all help make for a good list post, the one thing that I think can make a really great list post is a bit of added commentary. It’s all very well and good to put together a collection of examples that demonstrate something particular, but in my experience, it’s even better to take the time to explain to your readers why you chose the various examples in your article.
For example, if you want to show me 20 examples of great comment submission forms, then take the time to tell me why each example is great. Is it the layout, the design or the usability? Is it the creative styling of the form elements or some tiny detail that really sets it apart? Perhaps it’s not even so much the form itself, but rather the way it is framed.
Providing this kind of commentary gives your readers something extra to engage with. Rather than just having an image to look at, your discussion can actually provide them with some context, and something to encourage their own thinking. Even if they don’t necessarily agree with your reasoning, it will still force them to engage the subject on a critical level, and make their own thoughts and judgements on the subject.
And, as I’ve already mentioned, any article (list or otherwise) that can do that is a successful article.
So there you have it: four elements that I think can work to actually produce a really great list post. Of course, I don’t really expect to see any significant change in the community tomorrow, or any time soon. After all, these articles have been experiencing success for a long time, and some of their more enthusiastic publishers are more concerned with traffic and numbers than with providing real value to the design community. So, mindless, poor quality lists will very likely continue to circulate.
Still, for those of you who are looking to deliver great and meaningful content to your readers, there is really no reason to abandon the list post entirely. Instead, consider some of the things that we have discussed here. Hopefully, they can help you put together some of the best list posts that the community has ever seen – the type of lists that will get frequently bookmarked because of the genuine value that they offer.
Your Turn To Talk
What do you guys think? Any time someone opens the lid on the subject of list posts, there’s always the potential for some very strong opinions. Are there any other characteristics that help make a great list post? Feel free to have your say by leaving a comment!