Why we don’t need another numbered list

By Sue Voyles / October 27, 2020 / ,

Much of what we see online (and in print) seems to have been founded on the David Letterman school of “top 10” lists. While some of that approach can be helpful – a quick way to make a point – it seems to be overused these days.

So, let me give you some thoughts on how I think this trend can be fixed.

Instead of using a list, summarize. A list in itself tells us very little and often doesn’t help to get to the real point, though as a summary it can be very helpful. Think back to what we learned in English composition: an essay includes an introduction, a thesis statement, main points and a conclusion. Let me suggest that this formula is being overlooked, with writers instead opting for the numbered list for blogs, essays or whatever they are trying to share.

My suggestion: Go back to the basics. Review the composition formula, understand structure and give up the numbers. Obviously, make your points, even use subheads, but avoid listing them.

Lists may lead to readers losing sight of your idea. The multitude of information choices out there, coupled with the rapid pace of digesting information, works against our abilities to understand information in a meaningful way. Ideas get easily lost, and we find ourselves trying to prevent that with things a numbered list. What was meant to be helpful to the reader, who is scrolling, scanning, skimming or actually reading, can become an impediment. Why? Distraction by the numbering itself – why did the writer choose 12 or 13 and not 10? With many numbered items, it can be hard to figure out what is really the main idea. Lists can distract and confuse the reader, and often fail to provide a logical progression or obvious connection between the points.

My suggestion: If you think back to English class, you’ll remember “transitions.” They allow us to smoothly connect one concept to another. Your readers will appreciate content that connects the points in a transitional way.

Respect your reader. Lists may have been meant to show care and concern for the reader, giving them a chance to digest the ideas, but actually the opposite can be the case. Giving me a list of 10 or 15 do’s too often includes the obvious. When it’s obvious to others, the writer would better serve the reader by not even including it. Now I have just used an obvious idea – respect your reader – right? But I’m guessing you never considered a numbered list as disrespectful before, so I am challenging the reader – you – to think differently, outside of the box and not be confined by the list concept someone is presenting.

So, with that said, let me finish: Stop the endless list approach now. Learn to connect ideas in a meaningful way (and use transitions, too). Both respect and challenge your reader.