Holding Forth

Published on March 20th, 2015 | by Richard Black


Five Things I’ve Learned About Writing a Post About Five Things


Even the Chinese liked lists. They developed their whole system of writing to look like a giant pictograph of someone’s shopping list. Then again it also looks like a Sudoku puzzle.

Given the popularity of lists in publications these days I thought I’d write one about their appeal and not just because I wanted to tap into the market and shamelessly promote myself.

Given the ubiquity of the “Top Ten Fill in the Blank” titles I’ve seen over the past few years I tended to think that lists of this sort were a somewhat modern development. It turns out I was wrong. Lists have a long and venerable history. Just look at Moses. Instead of hauling a novel written in stone down the mountain in a giant cart he walked down with two, comparatively light, tablets to dictate the moral foundations for his tribe and the majority of Western civilization.

In addition to sparing Moses the very real possibility of a severe back injury God knew what He was doing. Lists work. They grab the reader’s attention, imply that a succinct piece of writing will follow and that the information that follows will be pertinent and actionable. Lists, for better or worse, are accessible. They sell. There isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t see a tabloid announcing “17 Things You Can do to Drive Your Man Wild in Bed” or “18 Things You Can Do to Get the Stains Out of Your Bed After Driving Your Man Wild”. As proof of their efficacy and, perhaps due to the fact that I will buy any product with a before and after montage, I currently have an entire pallet of Oxy Clean, a closet full of bubbly bath bombs and a case of “foot massagers”.

The limited bandwidth of the average person’s time these days and the vast number of of options for entertainment have also given rise to the lists preeminence. We are barraged on a daily basis with pleas to read or watch or bathe and, to complicate matters, the average recipient of this onslaught of information has the attention span of a retarded gnat on methamphetamine. Of course I’m not including my readers in this gross generalization. I’m sure you’re all very focused and attractive people who have put down your copy of “A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man” to read this post. I applaud and thank you for taking time away from that boat anchor of a book to read something of relevance and substance.

And so, without further ado and before I offend the few remaining readers I have, here is what I’ve determined about lists:

  1. Lists are Accessible: They provide readers with a sense of what they’re in for before they read the article or post. I would not, for example click through on an article titled “10 ways to Treat Your Hemorrhoids with a Belt Sander” if I did not have hemorrhoids or a belt sander. Unfortunately I have both.
  2. Lists Imply Brevity: Given all of the options for entertainment these days the average person doesn’t have a lot of bandwidth when it comes to leisure. Lists imply that the reader will obtain some modicum of wisdom in and abbreviated form. For example “A list of 10 Things to Do in the Shower” implies a relatively short read that will, presumably, detail how to minimize the time it takes to masturbate in a shower
  3. Lists are not Organic. They are structured and require a certain amount of forethought. If I were writing about “A List of Five Things to Consider When Writing a List” I would not be able to ramble about how difficult it is to write when your four year old daughter has been vomiting every fifteen minutes for the past six hours.
  4. Do Not Attempt to Write a List About Anything When Tending to a Barfing Four Year Old. Just call it a day. There’s nothing that can be accomplished. Hunker down under a few towels in the bed, take some vitamin C and try to avoid the vomit. Come to think of it don’t try to compile a list a few days later when you’ve caught the same bug in between the few moments you are not hurling the contents of your stomach into a toilet.
  5. When Making a List be Certain You Have Enough Things to List.

I think that about sums it up. Good night and God Bless.

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One Response to Five Things I’ve Learned About Writing a Post About Five Things

  1. Keith Zafren says:

    Great post, Derek. There are three reasons why:
    1. Use of humor is engaging and made me laugh out loud a few times. Keeps me wanting more and reading.
    2. In the midst of what at first feels like entertainment only, it was actually instructive–it taught me a few reasons why lists actually work.

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