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Writing Articles: What's a Listicle ... And How Do I Write One That Sticks?

List + Article = Listicle (prounced list-ick-kuhl, like “popsicle.”)

It’s a catchall phrase for any article in list form.

Listicles are popular for lots of reasons: they are fun to read, easy to write, offer practical or unusual information, and are sharable – which is especially important online.

Plus, they are versatile. You can write these types of list-articles for any type of publication, from the web to social media, print magazines, newsletters, children’s publications, young adult publications, as how-tos, features, fillers … the options are endless.

List+Article=Listicle from Nonprofit Copywriter

What's the Structure?

The structure is what makes these articles unique.

  1. The list is numbered (like this one.)
  2. The number of items is announced in the headline.

    7 Tips for Summer-Weary Moms
  3. Each item on the list makes a separate point.

    23 Free Summer Activities for Your Preschooler

But that same structure that makes the format unique can be its downfall. For writers, it can be tempting to use a numbered list as a crutch ... and your list-article is tedious or hackneyed.

It needn’t be.

5 Tips for Writing Listicles that Stick

1. Write a Headline that Contains a Surprise

The most urgent writing tip for a list-article is this: write a fun headline.

You need to find a special twist or unique approach for your content and then indicate that slant in the headline. At all costs avoid writing a trite or predictable headline, like this one:

         5 Tips for Writing Better Articles

Snore. Any writer wants to write better articles. But with an overwhelming amount of accessible content, I need a more compelling reason than “better” to read the article.

That’s why this approach is more captivating:

          Avoid These 5 Article Writing Pitfalls at Your Peril

This headline slant surprises me. Normally I don’t consider writing to be a perilous pastime. Yet I don’t want to fall into a writing trap, so at the very least I will skim the article list thereby assuring myself that I’m not making a big mistake.

Ta-Dah! The headline got the reader to read the listicle.

Or what about this one?

          5 Boredom-Busting Tips for Overhauling Your Articles

Your article has a greater chance of getting read if the headline is fun and easy to read. This one sounds like a good time! If I’m a reader, I’d be sure to check it out.

(By the way, “5 Tips for Writing Listicles That Stick” -- the header of this section --  slips past the snooze-o-meter and into the fun category because of the word “listicles,” their “stickiness,” and because those two words rhyme.) 

Once you have a headline with a twist, you’ll be able to easily add content that leans into that slant.

2. Decide What Type of List You Will Write 

List articles come in a few standard types. 

Personal experience: Write about what you know firsthand. (Be sure to include “I” in the headline.)

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Advice: Your list can be a combination of personal insight and guidance from experts. (Tip: this is a good opportunity to include “How To” in the headline.)

          Build Your Open-Rate with These 5 Kinds of Articles

Researched Lists: Dig deep into a topic and then report what you find.

          How 5 Veteran Nonprofit Leaders Find New Article Content Each                    Month

Editorial listsStudy trends and process them with a particular slant.

          Millennials Click Through These 5 Types of Articles Every Day

Mega Lists: Many points listed together.

          55 Articles that Teach You to Write Headlines

3. Choose the Length of List You Will Write 

Short lists: less than 10 items

          3 Cost-Saving Fundraising Tips for a Down Economy

Standard numbers: lists of ten, a dozen, or a baker’s dozen

          10 Commandments for Writing Nonprofit Newsletters

Long lists (or mega lists): each item can stand on its own. Tip: make this kind of list article more accessible to readers when you group items in categories with brief subheads to guide the reader.

          38 Ways Your Nonprofit Is Unique

4. Use an Odd Number 

Best-sellers 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Steven Covey, first released in 1990) and 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership (John Maxwell, 1997): what do they have in common?

Odd numbers in the titles. Recent research by marketing firm Outbrain shows that odd-numbered list articles outperformed even-numbered list articles by 20%.

How can you be sure you end up with an odd number of list items?

  • Start with more information than you need
  • Organize your list. If you have an even number of items for your list article, then eliminate the weakest item from the list (8 becomes 7). Or divide the strongest item on your list and make it into to two to achieve an odd number (6 becomes 7).

Tip: if at all possible use a prime number – a number only divisible by itself. People remember prime numbers because they are unusual.

5. Use a Numeral

Numbers jump out to the human eye. Do not spell out the number (“Nine”) but use the actual numeral (“9”).

Exception: there are occasions in which odd numbers are simply not possible. For instance, if your church has 4 campuses, you cannot create a headline and list article that says you have 3 or 5 locations.

Listicle Bonus Tip

Close your article-list one of two ways.

  1. Write a snappy summary.
  2. Write a final list item that’s a kicker, whether it’s an unusual point, an unexpected turn, or one last thought-provoking idea. (Like this one. It’s a bonus!)


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