Every successful blogger, content creator, PR writer and feature writer knows that even before the birth of Buzzfeed, the listicle has long been an essential format because it’s quite effective for quickly conveying a benefit to the reader in the title/headline and for providing a scannable and “chunky” format for scanning and reading. But with AI now the elephant in the room, has the listicle lost its luster? Have bloggers lost their purpose?
If you’re new to listicle writing and/or wondering why you should bother since AI programs like ChatGPT can generate a listicle in the time it has taken me to write this sentence, trust me when I tell you that writing listicles the old-fashioned way is still very much required. Formatting and writing a listicle correctly — with depth, your personal and professional experience and credible information boosted and verified by outbound links — is what will help your listicle stand out and ultimately engage your target audience wherever they are in the marketing funnel.
Yep, I was freaking out over ChatGPT
I confess: I was worried about AI taking over for bloggers and rendering us moot and mute. But then I compared this listicle on how to write a listicle with three AI-generated versions, including ChatGPT, and it made me feel much better about the continued need for real people to write listicles. I will be writing a post on that illuminating experience to detail how I think AI-generated text can and can’t be helpful to bloggers and content creators, but in the meantime, here are 11 guidelines for writing and formatting a listicle blog post, including some very key ways the blogger beats the bot:
#1 Determine the number in your list
None of the AI-generated listicles had any advice for deciding the number of your list. Here’s mine: Think about what you can and want to write about that will be of value to your readers. Next, determine how many discrete chunks of information or steps you might need to explain it. Almost any topic can be in a list format, but a list needs at least three items. Two is not a list; it’s a duo or a couple. Three is the magic number. Three is where a pattern emerges and things get interesting. Therefore, three is the minimum for a list-based post, but your list can be 4, 5, 7, 10, 12, 15, 20 or more, even way more.
I am constantly reading posts and articles like The 50 Best Movies on Amazon Prime Right Now, and I recently saw my first 41 list on The Wrap: The 41 Best Movies on Amazon Prime February 2023. The biggest list I have seen in a long time was Rolling Stone’s The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, which is a really good one to bring up at social gatherings if you want to start arguments.
While I think a list should be as many as it needs to be to deliver the information, there is research that shows 10 and 5 (respectively) are the top-rated numbers for lists and that the teens are best avoided, but again, if your list is 13 or 14, and needs to be, don’t force it to 12 or 15. Always err on the side of providing the right information in scope and depth rather than forcing it to fit into another number.
#2 Use the number in your benefit-driven title/headline
While ChatGPT did advise me to use the number in my title, which is good advice, it also told me to keep my headline punchy and short. This is not a helpful guideline. Like this advice, punchy titles are often vague, and you don’t need to keep your title short. In fact, the informal/conversational and teaser title strategies, both of which I discuss in my post on how to write good headlines, are very popular right now. Every publisher from The New York Times to BuzzFeed, uses these strategies for article/post headlines and titles.
And no, they are not short and punchy.
The key advice for writing a successful headline to go atop your listicle is that it needs to convey a concrete benefit to the reader. Providing the number makes the concreteness of the benefit stand out even more. This article from Fast Company 7 Ways To Talk About Your Athletic Experience On A Job Interview is very concretely providing a benefit — seven of them. Same with Entrepreneur’s 4 Ways to Set Up Your Personal Finances Right and Tackle Your Financial Goals This Year. They are not punchy headlines, but I know what I’m going to get out of reading them and that’s what matters.
#3 Write an introduction contextualizing your list
Never start your post by diving into the list. Write an introduction, which should be one paragraph minimum, but can be two to four paragraphs. I don’t think it’s best to go too much longer before delivering the list, but if you need more in-depth context, make sure to use subheads/images/visuals to break up the text.
An introduction to your list provides the context for what you’re writing about and why. Explain to your audience why you’re sharing this information and the value that it holds for you and in turn to your reader. How did you learn this information? How did you rank it? (More on that in #6) How will it help the reader? What can they learn from what you’re about to discuss?
This context, detail and personal experience is what separates you, a blogger with a heart, from the bot or the writer who doesn’t value her/his/their reader.
Introduce the list at the end of the intro paragraph. In the text, unlike the headline, you must spell out 1-9 (if you follow AP style) in the text. For example: Here are five important tips for websites that I learned after launching my own. OR Below I discuss the three ways the Sixers can still make the playoffs.
#4 Number the list and format each subhead as an H2 Tag
Another very important guideline that AI-generated listicles missed entirely is about how to format your list’s subheadings. First, don’t use bullet points instead of numbers. Always number a list in the post 1, 2, 3…, even if it’s only three items. (For some reason, The New York Times did not number this list of 100 movies on Amazon Prime and navigating it would have been much easier numbered.)
Next, each list item needs a subheading that is formatted as an H2 tag. Here’s a crash course on subheading tags: The main post title is always and automatically H1 in most content-managed systems like WordPress or Wix. That means it’s the page’s main heading. Each list number and its subhead then become the second-level of headings in the post, or the H2 tags. Formatting (or technically “wrapping”) your subheads with H2 tags makes them an official html element, and that subhead will appear larger than the regular text. I also bold my list items and use an accent color. Bold H2-level subheads make your posts and online articles scannable and “chunky.”
This HubSpot post provides a very good introduction to heading tags.
Search Engines and Screen Readers Need Heading Tags Too
Aside from establishing visual appeal and scannability, heading tags are also important to help search engine crawlers understand your content and which search queries it fits best with.
Heading tags are also essential for accessibility for visually impaired readers using screen readers. Screen readers can move through content by the heading levels you provide with H2, H3, H4 (if you have lists/subtitles within lists) and so on. A screen reader won’t see a sentence just in larger text and bold as a subhead. It needs the tag to recognize a heading.
#5 Use parallel structure for list items and emphasize keywords
Here’s an important guideline that ChatGPT and the others missed: your list subheads should be parallel.
Parallel structure means each item in the list is written using the same pattern or grammatical structure. Parallelism shows that each list item is connected and has the same level of importance. Parallelism makes your list even easier for readers to scan and digest.
The post you are reading right now is parallel as each one begins with an imperative verb, which is commonly used when giving directions or steps — Find, Write, Make, Write, Include… You can use gerunds too, the ing form of the verb: Walking, Eating, Sleeping, Doing Yoga…
If you are listing items, you would start with nouns (Cleanser /Toner/ Moisturizer/ Foundation) or product names.
While using keywords in your subheads no longer directly boost your SEO efforts (and this comes directly from Google), they will help the search engines understand your content, which helps them point searchers to your content. If you’ve done some basic keyword research and know your audience, there’s no need to be obsessing and keyword stuffing your subheads or any of your text. Write organically and use keywords when they fit and are most appropriate.
#6 Explain the order if and when necessary
Naturally, you will want to present your list in a logical order if the order matters, like it does in Real Simple’s 7 Essential Tips for Making the Best Charcuterie Board. There’s no need to announce that the steps should be followed in order. We know we need to buy the cheese before we can put it on the board.
But for other kinds of lists, be sure to explain any special way the list is organized in your introduction if it’s relevant. For example, you may be ranking or rating from number 1 to 10 or vice versa or your Top 10 Anti-Frizz products may be listed in order of how well you think they work or by price.
Giving your reason for organizing a list, explaining why this information is included and/or highlighting information in order of importance/personal preference is another way you stand out from the bots and other blogger’s giving similar advice.
#7 Don’t keep your listicle short just to be short
You know that advice: keep it short for today’s busy reader? Well, don’t believe it. Yes, we busy readers skim and scan, but we read and focus too. We will read long content if it’s helpful and relevant to our needs. The key is to provide the right detail and the context for it. You’re meeting someone’s search intent and information needs, not an artificial guideline.
The advice to keep it “super short for today’s busy readers,” 🙄 which IMO and experience (and what the research tells us) is now a cliché and a generalization that I think arose out of the early web usability and eye-tracking studies from the 2000s. This belief got stuck despite being only partly true or only true some of the time, and now it’s being repeated by AI-generated content.
That said, DO NOT present the information for any number/step as one long paragraph underneath the subhead. Long paragraphs are uninviting and hard to read, especially on a screen. Write paragraphs that are tightly focused on one idea to keep them as short as possible, but don’t force it. If you have some long paragraphs, that’s fine.
Too many super short paragraphs will create choppiness and are also not inviting to read.
It’s also fine to have one paragraph for one item and two or more paragraphs for another. You don’t have to be uniform in length under each list item. Each list item should be as long as necessary.
#8 Address your reader, like you know, a live human
Another important tip the bots missed entirely that I think is important especially for bloggers: write in a way that is like talking to your readers. I talk about why it’s so important to directly address your reader in my post about how to write your About page, and you should extend this practice to your posts. This is phrasing like, If you’re like me.. and I would love to hear what you think…
Your posts are an on-going conversation with your readers. You should share your experiences and ideas. Be personal as much as is appropriate for your topic and audience. But even if you’re writing to business people or people in your industry, you can still directly address them in your writing. You are one of them, after all! Again, personal experience (and being alive) is what separates you from the bots.
#9 Don’t just add outbound links to the list
Outbound linking is a convention, or long-established practice, of blogging, and basically the same is now true for any online feature content. You need outbound links in every post or article. Naturally, you will link to any products, media or items that make up the list itself, but do add at least two to three (or more) sources of information from well-established, reputable blogs or websites to add value and boost your credibility. This is another area where the auto-generated listicle advice falls short with no mention of the need to link to credible sources in your writing. Plus, ChatGPT cannot add links for you. That’s your job.
Also important to understand: Outbound links to reliable external sources impacts SEO (as explained in this Sprout Social post).
Inbound links, which are links to content on your own site, can also be helpful to your reader and a good way to help keep readers stay engaged with your content and the time they spend on your site. Do be clear in your text when a link is on your site vs. taking someone to an outbound site. And don’t overdo it on the inbound links or provide the same link several times in one post. Too many links, whether outbound or inbound, are annoying.
Make sure to anchor links in text that explains what the source is (like all of the links here in this document) so the reader understands where the link will take him. Avoid writing, “click here,” and pasting naked urls like this:
WRONG: Click here to read Barry Feldman’s HubSpot’s post: https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/proven-social-media-engagement-strategies
#10 Conclude with an invitation to engage, not a summary
Yes, ChatGPT, you always need a conclusion to your post after the list, but no ChatGPT, it should not be a summary “to help your readers remember key takeaways.”
The conclusion for any listicle should be a short wrap-up, not a repetition or summary of what you just explained above. Avoid writing: In summary, To Sum Up or In conclusion … I’m going to tell you what I just told you even though it’s right above in that nice list!
Instead, a blog post’s conclusion should invite your reader to engage with you. Ask your reader for feedback and to respond to you. The conclusion is the best place in a post to ask for direct engagement and a Call to Action (CTA) which I discuss in #7 of my post for writing your About page. For example:
Let me know what you think. Leave me a comment below or hit me up on Instagram. Don’t forget to subscribe, and thanks for reading!
#11 Include copyright-usable images and visuals
It’s certainly no-brainer advice by me or any AI-app that you should include at least one image per post (but more is often better) to create visual interest and scannability. Photos and gifs are not the only way to add visual appeal to your posts, but they are very effective.
BUT, it’s very important to remember that images must be usable under the Creative Commons copyright license. I discuss this in detail here in this post 10 Ways to Add Copyright-Usable Visuals to Bling Your Blog. Linking to an image is not permission and ignorance will not get you out of a copyright violation. Know the rules.
I hope these 11 guidelines help you successfully write and format your listicle post and make you feel a bit better about being a humanoid writer. I would love to read your listicles, especially your first one ever, so send me a link! If you need some professional help, especially if you’re new to blog writing and listicles, don’t hesitate to reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org or message me on LinkedIn.
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