One of the most popular formats for written online content is the humble listicle.
55% of bloggers say they’ve published a listicle in the last 12 months (only how-to articles rank higher).
But this popularity exists precisely because people love to read lists.
We love clicking on list headlines because they’re incredibly specific and set an expectation for what’s inside the article. We know what we’re getting into, and it’s satisfying to behold.
We love reading lists because our brains are wired for this exact type of information sorting.
And, by the time you’re done reading this article, you’ll love writing listicles, too.
What is a listicle?
A listicle is a type of content that smashes together two things: an article and a list.
Simply put, in a listicle, you present information formatted as a detailed list. Usually, accompanying each list item will be a few paragraphs of description to help the reader understand it, to give them background or history on it, or to explain why it matters.
Listicles are formatted in a very specific way, with each list item denoted with a numbered subheading.
Here’s a good example from a Reader’s Digest listicle of the 100 Best Books of All Time. Each book’s title is a numbered point on the list formatted as a heading. Underneath each list item is a summary of the book, why it made the list, and why you should read it.
Why you should write listicles
Listicles are one of the most popular content types for a ton of reasons:
They break down a topic into bite-sized, easily-digestible pieces.
The list format is easy to scan, which helps readers find the information that’s most important to them.
When written about an educational topic, the listicle helps clarify complex ideas and processes.
The list format makes complicated topics and long explanations more approachable and less intimidating.
Writing listicles and publishing them as part of your content strategy is also useful for meeting brand content and SEO goals.
Listicles tend to get great engagement – when people see a typical listicle headline, they’re more likely to click it.
In a BuzzSumo study of the most-shared headlines, articles that got the highest engagement started with a number, e.g., “7 unique ways to decorate for the holidays” or “10 of the best books of all time.”
Half of the top 10 SEO expert columns on Search Engine Land in 2022 were listicles. (And that article itself is one example of a listicle.)
Don’t forget keyword rankings. If your listicles are properly researched and optimized for the right topics/keywords, they’ll rank in search engines, grab clicks, and drive traffic and leads to your website.
So, let’s answer the question: How do you write a good listicle that accomplishes all these things?
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How to write listicles that grab your audience
Writing listicles can be extremely straightforward. However, you can take your listicles to the next level by incorporating these steps.
1. Choose a great listicle topic
First, make sure you choose a topic that lends itself to a list – not every topic will work for writing a listicle.
The best listicle topics are straightforward and easily sorted into a list. If you do your sorting and are left with dangling information that wouldn’t make sense as part of your list, you need to rethink the topic or hone it.
For example, this article you’re reading could have been a listicle, but ultimately all the information I wanted to share wouldn’t fit neatly inside the list format (such as the definition of a listicle and why you should write one). These “danglers” ruin the list – and defeat the neatness, simplicity, and satisfaction inherent in the format.
Long story short: If you can’t fit all the information in your article neatly inside a list, you shouldn’t write it as a listicle.
2. Write a clear and specific listicle headline
Thankfully, your listicle headline should write itself – but it shouldn’t be clickbaity.
Click-bait headlines promise more than they deliver. That means your headline initially excites your reader in some way, but when they click and start reading, they immediately feel let down.
Avoid this by getting clear and specific about what your article will include. Describe that in your headline, including the exact number of steps/points your list contains.
For example, if I was writing a listicle about the best eco-friendly clothing companies, I would word it like this:
“10 amazing eco-friendly clothing brands for the earth-conscious shopper”
Or, if I was writing a listicle of tips to save money on heating/cooling:
“5 simple tips to save money on heating and cooling your home”
These headlines are descriptive, but they don’t over-promise. They’re also front-loaded with the number of points in the list.
This listicle headline from a plumber is another great example. It’s simple but effective:
3. Outline and number the steps or points
Next, lay out all the steps, points, or items in your listicle. Write them out as a simple list and number them accordingly.
This is your outline – a very helpful step that allows you to see your entire article at a glance and ensure it makes sense from a zoomed-out perspective.
At this point, ensure that your list items are ordered as logically as possible.
If your list items are steps in a process, organize them in the order needed to complete the task.
If the order of your list items doesn’t depend on logic, list the most valuable items or points first – the ones your readers will care about the most.
For example, this listicle by Baking Kneads offers 13 tips for baking a cake. The tips follow a logical order, starting with prepping ingredients and ending with the right frosting technique.
4. Don’t chain yourself to a certain number of points
As you’re outlining your listicle, don’t say, “I must write 13 points or else…”
That’s a recipe for an unsatisfying list. What if you have way more valuable information than that? What if you could easily write a list of 25 points, each one of them useful?
On the other hand, what if you struggle to come up with more list items after number 7? The remainder of your points probably won’t be that valuable or interesting – and that’s how you end up with useless fluff.
Instead, let your topic guide you on how much information you need to satisfy readers – and how long your list should be.
Do topic research on Google to see what competitors have included in their lists.
Think about your brand expertise and add what you know will be valuable based on your knowledge and experience.
Consider what your audience needs to know, and aim to provide that.
Never add more list items just to hit a specific number or pad out your list.
Great example: Plenty of people will tell you that including a certain number of items in your listicle is more engaging and will earn more clicks and reads. Some say to only use odd numbers, others stick to multiples of 5, and a few only build lists with 1-9 items.
This Backlinko listicle completely throws all those “best practices” out the window by including 200(!) items.
5. Make each point or step clear and valuable
To write a truly useful list article, make each point or list item as clear and valuable as possible. This means being specific, actionable, and descriptive.
For example, if I was writing a listicle of fall gardening tips, it would be easy to be vague, like:
“But wait!” my green-thumb readers would think. “Plant what bulbs? Prune what?”
These steps only hit one target: They’re actionable. But, to be clear and valuable, they must be specific and descriptive, too. Here’s how I would edit them:
Plant spring bulbs like garlic, tulips, and daffodils
Prune hardy perennials and woody herbs
Yes, you could describe these actions in the paragraph text. But, you’ll make your overarching list more valuable (and optimized) if you get clearer at the list level. For the scanning reader, especially, this is super useful. It also helps search engine crawlers understand what your content is about.
Here’s a good example of that from a gardening tips listicle by Eartheasy:
6. Use the right formatting for a listicle
Always use the same format for every listicle you write.
Sure, you could skip the formatting and just do whatever feels right. But remember that listicles are popular precisely because of their numbered list format. It’s the reason they’re so engaging and attention-grabbing. So why mess with a proven standard?
Here are the general rules to follow:
Format each list item as a numbered heading.
Use the same heading level for each point in the list (all H2s, all H3s, etc.).
Describe each list item. Tell the reader why it’s on the list, why they should care, and, if applicable, how to do it.
Order your points logically – use chronological order if you’re listing steps in a process; add the most valuable points at the top if there’s no clear ordering scheme.
If relevant, add images to illustrate each point. (For example, each book in the “best 100 books” list above includes a photo of the cover.)
Finally, if your list is super-long, consider grouping it by categories.
For example, a listicle of Christmas stocking stuffer ideas is grouped by type of gift:
Ready to write your listicle?
Don’t get overwhelmed when writing your listicle. Though there are lots of tiny details that will help your content rank better and earn more reads, you probably have an instinct about creating a good list already.
Think about it: How many listicles have you consumed in the last week alone? The last month? If you’re like most online readers, it’s probably a lot more than you realized.
Take all the things you love about listicles and pour them into your content. Add in these steps and tips, and mix well. Your effective listicle will be ready for your content calendar in no time.