The Good and Bad of Enumerated Lists

Writing by enumeration–writing a ‘list of n things’–restricts you to a structure that is easier to produce and is easier for readers to follow and comprehend, but limits free thought. That’s one of many points that Paul Graham makes in an essay discussing the merits and disadvantages of writing enumerated lists.

One obvious negative that Graham points out is that, in most situations, lists of n things are used by lazy writers not even attempting to stretch themselves, or read by readers who don’t fully trust the author to produce an appealing-enough short-form essay. And of course, there’s the sound advice to almost always avoid lists with ‘the’ before the number, as a list is rarely exhaustive and instead you’re likely being fooled into believing it is (read: linkbait).

Because the list of n things is the easiest essay form, it should be a good one for beginning writers. And in fact it is what most beginning writers are taught. The classic 5 paragraph essay is really a list of n things for n = 3. But the students writing them don’t realize they’re using the same structure as the articles they read in Cosmopolitan. They’re not allowed to include the numbers, and they’re expected to spackle over the gaps with gratuitous transitions (“Furthermore…”) and cap the thing at either end with introductory and concluding paragraphs so it will look superficially like a real essay. […]

Another advantage of admitting to beginning writers that the 5 paragraph essay is really a list of n things is that we can warn them about this. It only lets you experience the defining characteristic of essay writing on a small scale: in thoughts of a sentence or two. And it’s particularly dangerous that the 5 paragraph essay buries the list of n things within something that looks like a more sophisticated type of essay. If you don’t know you’re using this form, you don’t know you need to escape it.

As a purveyor of fine hyperlinks since 2008, I also feel that posting (to) a list of n things is also, in most situations, lazy link-blogging. However there are always some that will make the cut and get posted, and Graham’s essay helps one see why they might have been especially appealing.