5 Ways Lists Are Too Reductive


1. Lists breed lists. They whet our appetitive for more lists in the following ways:

a) They are an easy-to-consume portion of information: essentially a Jell-o shot of data

b) They are aesthetically appealing: who doesn’t cringe at a block of text?

c) We can memorize them for later use with our friends: they fit into our head-pockets like thought-iPhones

2. It’s complicated. Lists clobber the life out of long-form journalism, which we sometimes need to, you know, explain stuff. Sometimes the world is complicated and subtle; most good, or at least interesting, stories and situations are like suitcases after a beach trip: they require unpacking. Lists can’t really capture nuance. (Except for: “5 Ways to Capture Nuance This Valentine’s Day!” from last year’s cover of The New England Journal of Contradiction and Roller-skating). But seriously, do you really want to have a relationship, a foreign policy, a biography, or medical advice that is so uncomplicated people can readily understand it via a listicle? If so, look for my upcoming: “Four Easy Ways to Comfort Your Partner on their Grandmother’s Passing!” in January’s issue of The Douchebag’s Companion.

3. Is there a Cliffnotes version of this? The proliferation of lists makes us used to processing lists. What happens when some important instructions appear in non-list form? Be honest with yourself, could you lose five pounds before New Year’s if Guy Stuff Magazine or LadyGirlz Weekly expanded on their three simple tips? What if they just wrote in-depth well-researched articles about ways to integrate fitness into your life because their entire readership probably is not going to drop weight from the same three magic tips?

4. I can’t believe they forgot (blank)! They foster annoying internet debate over what’s missing. Or worse, smarmy smug snarkers will share it with self-congratulatory asides about how they like the thing that’s missing the best. Of course, things are going to be missing from something that is only five things. There are more than five things in the world!

5. Not everything condensed is good. For example, condensed milk tastes like the blood of elves, which is bad. Lists make writers try to squeeze (or stretch) ideas into arbitrary numbers. For instance, I basically covered most of what I’m saying here in point two. What is the last great idea that required no further explanation than five bullet points? Or if it’s the rare light bulb idea (Penicillin cures infection) all you’ll really need is one sentence. Even this straightforward argument could have used a few paragraphs, but alas; this is a list.

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