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The 7 facts of lists of N things

1321 Lists of N things are a joke

For most lists, saying that they are a joke is a derogatory statement which might as well be true. For this one, instead, because this is tha list, it’s true. This is a joke built out of Paul Graham‘s essay The List of N Things. If you were after some real information, stop being lazy and read Paul’s essay. If you weren’t, read it anyway before reading this list. And if you go there and never come back to finish reading this, no problem. I forgive you.

2 Readers like lists of N things

It’s simple, they are easier to read than a regular article. They are a degenerate case of essay. An essay can go anywhere the writer wants. In a list of n things the writer agrees to constrain himself to a collection of points of roughly equal importance, and he tells the reader explicitly what they are.

3 Lists of N things can be read in any order.

Because the main points are unconnected, the list of n things is random access. There’s no thread of reasoning you have to follow. You could read the list in any order. And because the points are independent of one another, they work like watertight compartments in an unsinkable ship. If you get bored with, or can’t understand, or don’t agree with one point, you don’t have to give up on the article. You can just abandon that one and skip to the next. A list of n things is parallel and therefore fault tolerant.

But be sure to read point 1 of this list.

4 Sometimes writers want them

There are times when this format is what a writer wants. One, obviously, is when what you have to say actually is a list of n things. Another reason is when a deadline is coming fast like a train, building up a list is easier than just elaborating on a matter.

5 Lists of N things are easier for writers

The list of n things is easier for writers as well as readers. When you’re writing a real essay, there’s always a chance you’ll hit a dead end. A real essay is a train of thought, and some trains of thought just peter out. That’s an alarming possibility when you have to give a talk in a few days. What if you run out of ideas? The compartmentalized structure of the list of n things protects the writer from his own stupidity in much the same way it protects the reader. If you run out of ideas on one point, no problem: it won’t kill the essay. You can take out the whole point if you need to, and the essay will still survive.

6 The classic 5 paragraph essay is really a list of 3 things

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.

7 Lists starting with “the” are dishonest

There is one case where the list of n things is a dishonest format: when you use it to attract attention by falsely claiming the list is an exhaustive one. I.e. if you write an article that purports to be about the 7 secrets of success. That kind of title is the same sort of reflexive challenge as a whodunit. You have to at least look at the article to check whether they’re the same 7 you’d list. Are you overlooking one of the secrets of success? Better check.

It’s fine to put “The” before the number if you really believe you’ve made an exhaustive list. But evidence suggests most things with titles like this are linkbait.

Reviewed by Daniel Magliola. Thank you! 1, 3, 2 picture by Damien Franco.