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.