Top 10 Reasons Not to Write a @#%*$ Top Ten List


As an editor and avid consumer of pop culture, I have a bone to pick with the top ten list. That’s right, Top Ten, I call you out.

Wherever I go, there they are: Like cockroaches or golden arches, top ten lists are everywhere, from TV to blogs to bathroom walls. I’ve even seen top ten lists of the best top ten lists. Sure, sometimes it's simply unavoidable, and I must admit that I've fallen under the spell once or more (here, for example!), but every time I do, I have to question my motives.

When I say that I probably read at least ten a day, I may be exaggerating in order to kowtow to the magical number ten, but this is just one of the reasons to avoid it. Here are some others.

Why You Should Avoid the Top Ten List

10. It’s cliché.

Face it: The number 10 is so overdone, it’s burnt toast. Some things are repeated so often they lose their meaning. That dead horse has been beaten so long and hard it looks like a pile of kibble. The only reason to Google "top ten list of baby names" is to find out which names to avoid, right? Everyone else is doing it, and that should be reason enough for us all to try something different.

9. It’s a lie.

Sometimes, a list is based on measurable, qualitative facts. But usually, it's just a random collection of ideas that appropriate respectability by declaring themselves the best: Top! Most! Biggest! Awesomest! This list you are reading is just a bunch of my ideas, but the words "Top Ten" give the impression that I have weighed, rated, or polled each idea. I haven't. I'm just spouting off here. So to call something "Top Ten" makes it disingenuous from the start.

8. It hijacks your voice.

If you compare this with other things I’ve written, you’ll see that the tone I use here is different from what I sound like in my other writing. That’s because in order to fit into the list format, a voice must conform to a listy cadence. Toni Morrison could make a grocery list sound like poetry, but I'm not Toni Morrison, and I'm expected to adhere to a certain tone in my list, which is always chirpy, sassy, entertaining, and wry. I'm not supposed to digress from this clipped enthusiasm. A list is no place to expand ideas, go off on personal tangents, show off your vocabulary, or dig deep. I can be a smart-ass but not too smart. You can embrace sarcasm and use lots of exclamation points!!! You can almost hear a Katy Perry song playing in the background. I am fighting the urge to insert an emoticon here.

7. It's pandering.

Pander: "To gratify or indulge (an immoral or distasteful desire, need, or habit)." Tabloids pander to people's baser instincts with their fleshy photos and lurid headlines, and top tens do the same. A list is just eye candy, as provocative as a peek-a-boo bra. For readers, the trend is toward easy, saturated fast-food thoughts that can be enjoyed on the road. Our baser desires as writers are to get as much attention as we can. Lists are excellent, quick, click-baity ways to rattle that cage.

6. It’s too easy.

Lists are are to bloggers what wheelchairs are to lazy people. If the list is the only way you can write, then maybe it’s better than nothing, but if you can think of another approach, please exercise that muscle, too. Aren't we getting tired of easy, breezy writing? Don't we sometimes want something a little more substantial?

5. It oversimplifies.

Complicated topics are chopped into awkward, uniform, bite-sized pieces to make them more palatable. Brevity is rewarded, depth is punished, and nuance is lost.

4. It promotes lazy habits.

Reading (or writing) a list is like reading (or writing) the CliffsNotes instead of the novel. They're great for skimmers, copy-pasters, and shallow thinkers, but after awhile, we may lose the ability to do anything else. It's like an able-bodied person who parks in a handicap zone so often he loses his ability to walk long distances. A list of 211 items? That's waaaay too long, man. Long paragraphs give me a headache. Research is hard. Can't you just give me a summary? There are just too many words.

3. It kills creativity.

If all our ideas come in the same ten-part box, then how long will it take for those thoughts to conform to the limitations of their containers? What slippery ideas, unusual perspectives, wriggling innovations, and shades of gray are lost?

2. It conveys a false hierarchy.

On a list, you're supposed to start with 10 and end with one, and each item is supposed to get progressively more important (or funny, or stupid, depending on what you promised in your title). The number-one spot is supposedly reserved for the toppest, mostest of whatever you're talking about. Sometimes this works naturally, but usually the items on the list are about the same, and so their relative importance is forced by their numbers.

1. It requires repetition, truncation, filler, and fluff.

In order to stuff what you have to say into a list of ten items, chances are you'll have to either cut something out or repeat yourself. I only had nine reasons, but now I have to add another because nine isn't as catchy as ten.

What to Use Instead

What to do instead of writing a top ten list:

  • If you must use a list, then at least let it add up to a natural or odd digit. Don't make your ideas conform to their numbers!
  • There are thousands of ways to organize your thoughts. Read widely to get a wide sampling of the possibilities.
  • If you're looking for subtitles that pull readers in, try a catchy word or phrase instead of a number. Questions are a good way of capturing the reader's interest. Even interesting photographs to separate one thought from the next might be preferable to numbers.
  • Use your writing skills to pull readers in instead of relying on the old list-crutch. Use language that pops and sizzles. Let yourself go off on the occasional tangent. Let your ideas unfold like complicated origami.
  • Maybe it's time to consider a different kind of writing. Instead of starting with numbers and thereby limiting yourself in terms of tone and depth, perhaps it's time to consider working your material into an essay or a longer piece that includes research, anecdote, history, comparison, or tangential explorations.
  • Rebel! Break the mold! Go rogue! Toss those numbers and go off-roading in the wide open land of prose!
  • Trust your readers to follow your lead. They may be shocked and confused at first, but if you write well, they will follow.

If you could invent the top ten list's replacement... cool would that be?!

Will the top ten list ever go away?

  • No way. The simplicity and ease of a numbered list of ten is irreplaceable.
  • Maybe. It seems like people are getting tired of seeing the same old thing.
  • Absolutely. The words "top ten" are already a sign of stale and poor content.
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