Even the literary-pretentious New Yorker has seen fit to publish one of those droning lists article: “10 Best Cars, of 2010,” “Five Best Places to take a First Date in New York,“ “Five Best Church Chapels for a Wedding,” etc. (John Updike and other renowned New Yorker contributors may be spinning as I type.)
All these easy-to-toss-off – and equally easy-to-pass-over – “Ten Best” list articles can leave a blog looking like the inside of a spam sandwich. Or, worse, like one of the breakfast entrÃ©es from Monty Python’s famous “Spam, spam, spam, spam!” skit.
Adam Gopnick, writing for the New Yorker ‘s NewsDesk blog is cognizant of the effect produced by the overuse of the “Ten Best” format. He starts his article, “Five Fine Moments,” with the following disclaimer:
I am personally wary, not to say disapproving, of “Ten Best” lists and the like, partly because I find them tendentious, but mostly because I find them deeply depressing, a reminder of time passing, matched by an effort to pretend that the time came in a neat package of quanta-these movies or books-rather than in its actual messy, decade-bending, sequence of shadings. But many nice things happened this year, mostly in sports, so here, in praise, are a few . . . .
Yet, self-mockingly, he tosses out his four favorite sports moments from 2010 and, as a sop to New Yorker readers, a reference to Nabakov’s “Pale Fire.”
Admittedly, I had to look up “tendentious” in my dictionary, but the word itself is at once a brilliant choice and a pithy summary of what is wrong with a blog that overuses the “Ten Best” format. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary (“concise” being an overreach for a seven-pound book) defines “tendentious” in the following terms: “adj. derog. (of writing etc.) calculated to promote a particular cause of viewpoint; having an underlying purpose.”
A blog that appears to be both “calculated” and to have an “underlying purpose” is not a pretty thing. Yet, how many blogs dedicated to “how to write blogs” have I read that are not only festooned with these “Ten Best” articles, but recommend that you use that very style yourself when writing for the web?
With very few exceptions, like getting recommendations for the top online magazines or best computer parts (I’m a voracious reader, and am trying to build my own computer), am I searching online for a list of things I absolutely must know, use or buy.
Most such blogs, I find, are “calculated” to attract free content, and the content that they attract is not really as entertaining, useful or informative as the writer might assume. This is probably because the blog itself usually an underlying purpose of affiliate marketing, attracting AdWords advertising from Google, or acting as an SEO (search engine optimization) device.
It’s not that I’m opposed to marketing and advertising per se, as I know that what’s finances most of the Internet as we know it; or, that I’m opposed to writing content for SEO purposes, I freelance for an SEO company after all. My opposition, I think, stems from a visceral reaction. An overly loaded “list blog” usually prejudices me, and I assume that it will prove to be (a) uninteresting, (b) unhelpful, and (c) uninformative. I usually click right back to Google without spending more than a few moments scanning the titles of the “Ten Best” whatevers.
As you’ve probably noticed (if, indeed, you’ve followed my argument thus far), I come from the school of writing that advocates the use of “threes.” Most people aren’t looking for the ninth best toaster, or for that matter, the ninth best SEO company. That’s why something like eighty percent of click-throughs are on the first three links of Google’s organic results page.
It makes sense. People have too many distractions already, particularly online. I find that an accurate, yet pithy, article title is more likely to grab my attention and inspire me to click, than yet another “Ten Best” piece. I would really like to see some analytics on how the most effective titles are, in fact, structured. I doubt they would show that yet another “Ten Best” as the most effective way to attract readers.
Falling back on my “rule of threes,” I’ll close by utilizing the advice given to me about the ‘Three-B’s of Public Speaking’: “Be brief, be concise, and be seated!”