5 ways to screw up your list story

List stories are a staple of online reading these days. Heck, if you throw a dart at Ragan.com or sibling site PR Daily, you’re likely to hit one—and you’re almost certain to damage your computer, so don’t do it.

Following is a list of common errors that will make your list sloppy at the very least and can outright confuse your readers.

1. Failure to count

Well, this is pretty basic. If you promise five techniques for doing something, make sure you give five—not four, unless you then proceed to five. Six is right out. (If you need help in the counting—and the importance thereof—consult the Book of Armaments, Chapter II, verses 9-21.)

You would be surprised at how often the headline or first paragraph of a tips piece has the wrong number, perhaps because two similar tidbits were combined, or because the writer (or overzealous editor) got a brilliant idea for another, but didn’t adjust the number at the top. It happens, trust me.

2. Mischaracterization of the items

If your essay is on “8 questions to ask in a job interview,” make sure they’re all questions—not five questions and three statements or imperatives.

“Give three examples of how you’ve solved a workplace problem” is not a question. “Can you give me three examples…?” is a question. If you need to rephrase something for sake of consistency, do so.

3. Inconsistency in subheads or bullet points

This article is about errors that can gum up your message. So, each item should be an error, a thing to avoid. Be consistent in your phrasing; make all your points nouns/gerunds, for example, without tossing in an active verb form, or vice versa. The key word in the header of this section, “inconsistency,” follows the pattern set by the first two, “failure” and “mischaracterization.” If the first two had been “You fail to count” and “You mischaracterize the items,” then the noun “Inconsistency” would be, well, inconsistent.

Moreover, if you shift gears and label a point with something the reader should do, it’s terribly confusing. For example, if you’re explaining how to make rigatoni by negative example, by mistakes—failing to measure the pasta, neglecting to heat the sauce—and you start a given point with “Put water in the pot,” you are, in essence, suggesting that putting water in the pot is an error to avoid. You’re better off compiling a list of “8 dos and don’ts,” or “6 steps for perfect pasta.” (In the former case, label the dos and don’ts clearly. In the latter case, offer all the tips in a positive vein.)

4. Hit-or-miss punctuation

This may seem minor, but if you have a period concluding some headers and no period at the end of others, it suggests inattention to detail and puts doubt in your reader’s mind about what other details might be lacking—or just plain wrong.

A simple rule of thumb: If your header or subhead is a full sentence, use a period. If not, omit it. If the lead-in is part of the paragraph but is not a full sentence, use a colon or an em dash. (I prefer the latter.)

5. The bait-and-switch on solutions

Recently, we ran a story—a recycled blog from another site—that in the lead paragraph promised a guide to recognizing certain behaviors and how to respond. The problem was that in half the instances, no responses were delivered, so they had to be added.

If you’re promising tactics, responses, or whatever, be sure you deliver.

This story originally appeared on Ragan.com in December 2011.


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