Ask a Freelancer

Ask a Freelancer: As a Journalist, Should Writing Listicles Bother Me?

By Nicole Dieker March 10th, 2015

Should journalists avoid writing listicles? Or should today’s journalists accept that you can’t spell “journalist” without “list?”

—Bothered By Listicles

Some people think writing listicles means they won’t get taken seriously as writers. Others are afraid writing listicles will prevent them from getting “real” journalism gigs. Don’t get stuck in the trap of thinking writing listicles puts you on a permanent B-list.

Yes, some listicles are pure clickbait; they get their bad rap because they are often superficial, providing declarative stances without reporting or research. However, just because certain listicles lack journalistic integrity doesn’t mean all listicles are bad. What matters in a listicle isn’t the format, it’s the content—and that’s the part that comes from you.

With that in mind, here are five reasons why you should embrace your listicle gigs, write the best lists possible, and use listicles as tools to get you the jobs you want.

1. Reputable publications use listicles.

Think listicles are antithetical to reputable journalism? Here are a few major publications that have used listicles in the past week:

The Washington Post:6 questions for Clinton on e-mail controversy

The New York Times:Analyzing the Elements of Art: Six Ways to Think About Shape

The Independent:Daylight savings time: Six things you didn’t know about the clocks going forward

And that’s just for the number six. The point is plenty of publications use listicles, and you’re as likely to see CNN publish a listicle about violence in Yemen as you are to see a pop-culture listicle about ’90s music videos. It’s the subject of the listicle that is most important, as well as the reputation of the publication behind the list. Good publications will do good listicles, and those are the listicle jobs you want to get.

2. Listicles have been part of journalism for a long time.

Know Your Meme claims the word “listicle” first started to show up in media around 2004, but when I tried to research the first publication to print an article written in the form of a list, I couldn’t get an answer. You know why? Because list articles have been around forever. (The Guardian jokingly suggests we need to look as far back as the Ten Commandments.) It’s only in the past decade list articles have picked up their pejorative—and undeserved—reputation.

Yes, a lot of publications use lists because they make for cleaner writing, easier reading, and quicker skimming—not to mention increased ad revenue if the listicle is structured in slideshow form. But that doesn’t make the list article a new and negative medium. Journalists have long used lists to structure their stories, and it seems to be effective.

3. Lists work because they guide readers through a story.

If you are worried lists are less informative or less thorough than longform writing, that’s a fair point. But not every topic deserves a longform treatment, and listicles are designed to make information easily digestible and understandable.

As The New Yorker explains in “A List of Reasons Why Our Brain Loves Lists“:

List-style headlines often provide that optimal balance of information and ambivalence, intriguing us just enough to click, on the chance that we’ll come across something particularly relevant or exciting. Once we click, lists tap into our preferred way of receiving and organizing information at a subconscious level; from an information-processing standpoint, they often hit our attentional sweet spot.

List articles work because they guide readers through the important points of a news story. Part of your job as a journalist is to present news in a way that your readers will remember later—what better way to do that than with a list?

4. Writing listicles now can set you up for writing narrative articles later on.

An anonymous writer recently wrote to The Awl’s advice column The Concessionist asking what to do after “I f**ked up the biggest opportunity I’ll ever have?”

The opportunity? Writing for BuzzFeed. This writer was in the running for a position at BuzzFeed but told the company she “didn’t want to write more clickbait than substance.” Now, she realizes this job could have led to some great work in the future.

BuzzFeed, like many publications, combines listicle and short-form writing with in-depth reporting—and when this writer said she only wanted to write pieces with substance, she removed herself from the very job that might have helped her get there.

Writing listicles gets you connections with editors, which in turn positions you for those more substantive pieces you dream about writing. Even if the site you’re writing for doesn’t do longform journalism, building a good reputation with an editor can get you that referral you need to a publication that only produces 5,000-word print pieces that get turned into movies.

Consider your listicle gigs a chance to showcase your best writing and build relationships with editors. Which brings us to:

5. Your job as a writer is to do your best work, no matter the format.

The writing world has changed dramatically over the past decade and will likely continue to shift as publishers evolve. Journalism now includes everything from 3,000-word reported articles to 50-word slideshow captions, and new technology and social media will give us additional ways of sharing news, quotes, quick facts, and lists with receptive audiences.

Your job as a writer is to do your best work, no matter what format that work takes. If a reputable news site asks you to write a listicle, that list you are writing counts as journalism, and turning it down says more about your reputation than it does about the news site in question.

In time, your career may develop to the point where editors no longer ask you to write listicles, or you may get enough longform reporting gigs that you can politely decline the list assignments. On the other hand, you could build a career as a journalist and one day your editor could say, “We’re integrating this new social technology into our platform and asking everyone on our team to write five-sentence stories,” and you’ll find yourself combining longform and shortform work once again.

So look at your career as an opportunity to do your best work in different styles. If you choose not to write listicles because you don’t think they’re good journalism, you might find that a lot of good journalism opportunities will pass you by.

Nicole Dieker has written many listicles, and expects to write many more. If you have questions about building a freelance career, send them to Ask a Freelancer via dieker.nicole@gmail.com.

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