8 Tips For Writing A Listicle For Publication

by Rachel Krantz
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For those of you who haven't seen the Internet in the last five years, listicles are quite popular. The "listicle," arguably popularized by Buzzfeed, is a sort of catchall phrase for any article that appears in the form of a list. Often, there are GIFs accompanying each point, though there can also be still images, or sometimes, no images at all. Sometimes, listicles are made up of 45 points, with only one line explaining each; other times, there are only eight points, with several paragraphs explaining each, like this one. As I'll get into below, there are many ways to write a listicle, and no one formula for utilizing the form.

That said, as one of the people who reviews the freelance pitches that come into Bustle, I can tell you what I'm looking for in a listicle as an editor. Sites like HelloGiggles, Buzzfeed, and Mic might have different things they're looking for in a listicle, and as a rule for pitching in general, you should be sure to familiarize yourself with what the articles look like on the site you're pitching to, and cater to that. But in general, I think many of these rules should serve you well, no matter where you're pitching.

Here are my eight tips for getting your listicle published.

1. Remember: Listicle Does Not = Lazy

This is the most important tip on here. Just because you're writing a list, that doesn't mean your writing or ideas can be lazy. In fact, because you already have a lot of the structuring work done for you, you should be devoting even more energy to your concept and form. Often, people get lazy with their writing or ideas when they put things in list form, which is the easiest way to have your pitch rejected. Because so many lists have already been done, you need to put even more energy into making sure your idea is original and well-executed. Which brings me to...

2. Choose Your Angle Wisely

Let's say, for example, that you want to write about your experience living abroad. I get a ton of pitches for lists on that topic, so you need to find a way to make your listicle stand out. Ask yourself: what was unique about my experience? What wouldn't people expect? What didn't I expect? Write out a few sample headlines, trying to get to as interesting an angle as possible.

So, for example, instead of writing "9 Things I Learned Studying Abroad," you might write "9 Ways French Guys Are Different Than American Guys" or "9 Things That Surprised Me About French Culture When I Studied Abroad."

3. Map Out Your Subheds

Once you have an angle, it's time to map out your subheds — aka the title of each point on the list (3."Map Out Your Subheds"). You don't have to follow these no matter what — you might find when you're writing that one subhed is actually two, smaller points, or that one point ends up being repetitive — but you should try to have them mapped out before you begin writing. You also want to make each subhed as specific and surprising as possible. So, for example, for a piece I wrote, "11 Things I Didn't Expect About Getting An IUD," these were my subheds:

1. They Wouldn't Let My Boyfriend Come Into The Room; 2. I Had A Spiritual Experience ... With RBG; 3. I Had Some Very Surprising Feelings About My Fertility; 4. Dealing With The Insurance Was Worse Than The Pain; 5. The Procedure Was Kind Of Like Demented Yoga; 6. She Spent A Lot Of Time Washing Out My Cervix; 7. Getting Shot In The Cervix Is Less Painful Than You'd Think; 8. I Wasn't Sure When It Actually Went In; 9. I Started Crying When It Was Finished — But Not In Pain; 10. It Didn't Totally Ruin My Night; 11. I Was Afraid Of The Wrong Things.

Note that each of these points are pretty specific. Most of them also leave something to be understood further — you don't want to give away everything in the subhed. Because people tend to skim lists, you want to write subheds that entice the reader to read your actual piece. They should be specific — but not too confusing or vague — and make the reader want to know more, and actually read what you wrote.

Writing out subheds this specifically will also help you keep yourself focused on what's interesting about your story, grounding you in the details, rather than vague summaries. When in doubt, split up broad subheds into more, smaller subheds.

4. Know Your Different Listicle Options

There are actually lots of different kinds of listicles out there, and it's useful to know which kind you're aiming for before you start writing. I'll list a few listicle formats that I publish on Bustle, but again, you'll want to familiarize yourself with each site you're pitching to, and match their preferences.

  1. The Personal Essay-Turned-Listicle. This is really a personal essay disguised as a list. It is about an experience you had, and it should be very personal. Often, if these lists are well done, they also incorporate some outside research and context, the way a reported story would. A few good examples: "What Getting A Medical Abortion Was Like For Me," "6 Reasons I'll Never Wear A Bra Again," "5 Things That Changed After I Stopped Eating Animals."
  2. Advice-Based-On-Experience-Listicle. Much like the personal essay lisitcle, this is based on your personal experience, and might incorporate research. The difference is your tone is not only of sharing your experience, but also giving (humble) advice. Some examples: "What Should You Say To Someone Who's Lost A Family Member? 9 Cliches To Avoid — And 3 Things That Might Help," 7 Hacks To Get Turned On ASAP (Or Better Yet, Slowly & Deliciously)," "How To Respond To 9 Common Anti-Feminist Comments."
  3. The Researched Roundup. These are heavily researched stories, in list form. They should be linked thoroughly from multiple, credible sources. Many of the articles that Bustle's JR Thorpe writes are great examples of these. A few I loved: "How To Help A Friend Who's Having An Abortion," "9 Signs You Have A Toxic Parent," 7 Old Wives' Tales That Are Actually Scientifically Proven."
  4. The Reported List. If you're new to reporting, or if you just want to find a more marketable way to pitch a harder news story, you might consider turning it into list form. I love doing this sometimes myself — none of the reporting should be dumbed down, but it can be a great way to trick people into learning something. A few examples: "Are Tampons Safe? 7 Reasons We Should Be Concerned About The Ingredients In Feminine Hygiene Products," "What's Next For The Gay Rights Movement?"
  5. The Lots-Of-Little-Points List. This is your traditional long listicle, and it can potentially be a good way to start publishing — if you have a specific enough angle and execute it well. For these, you want to focus again on the specificity of your points, but keep text under each GIF to a line or two, rather than a few paragraphs. A few examples: "30 Things Only Oakland Natives Understand, Because We Hold The Fairyland Key," "45 Little Ways You Know You Have A Good Boyfriend."
  6. The Editorial-Turned-List. This is political and editorial in nature, and you are trying to argue a specific point, often pegged to pop culture or the news, though not necessarily. Some Examples: "5 Important Reasons I Can't Love Taylor Swift Anymore," "7 Reasons Why Every Woman Should Absolutely Poop At Work," "7 Things That Prove You're A Feminist Even If You Think You're Not."

5. Keep It Tight

In general, if you're pitching a list to Bustle, you'll want to follow this format: 220 to 300-word intro, 7+ subheds, 1-2 paragraphs under each GIF. It is slightly different for a list over 15 or so points (intro is the same length, but each point should only have 1-3 lines under a GIF), or a personal essay list (there's a bit more room, potentially, for 3-4 graphs under each point). That said, you always, always want to make things as tight as possible when you're writing, and should compose your list with that in mind. (Here are some tips on self-editing to help with that.) For our site, lists run anywhere between 700-1300 words. Make sure you're within that range if you're pitching.

Once again, this is what I'm looking for — these are by no means formatting rules for other sites. You'll want to check out their lists and copy the average format and word count to cater your pitch to them.

6. Choose Your Images Wisely

After you've written your list, you can stand out by already embedding GIFs (or still images, if your piece is very serious) into your attached full draft.

When you're choosing your GIFs, you should have fun with it, and keep paying editorial attention. Just because GIFs are silly, that doesn't mean they should be random. Look for ones that help reinforce your point, or add humor to the piece. Though images of thin, white, cis people dominate all media, go out of your way to represent many different types of people in your GIFs.

To find the right GIF, I like to just Google specific phrases + GIF, based on the subhed (i.e. for subhed "Keep It Tight," I Googled "Keep It Tight GIF". You could also use a site like Giphy to find your images.

7. Don't Skimp On Your Ending

Sometimes, people get a little lazy when it comes to wrapping up lists. I can see how it's tempting to just end it, but just because it's a list, that doesn't mean you should end too abruptly. Either take a moment to wrap things up, or have a great kicker (that would be your witty last line).

8. Make Sure The Site You're Pitching Hasn't Published Your Listicle Already

Once you're ready to pitch, read my article on proper pitching etiquette, but add a crucial step: make sure the place you're pitching hasn't already published the list. Sure, there are a lot of ways to come at a popular story, but you need to make sure your exact angle hasn't been done.

I suggest Googling your headline with the site's name to figure this out, (e.g.,"Reasons Not To Shave Your Legs Bustle"). If you find the site has done it (and we very well might have) that's your cue that your headline, and potentially your subheads, need to be made more specific. Rework it until your angle is fresh. (You can also troubleshoot this before you start writing, by doing a simple Google search of your sample headline and seeing what else is out there.)

Good luck, and remember: listicles don't have to be dumb. Try to elevate the form whenever you can, by using humor, honesty, good writing, research, and originality. Compose your listicles wisely, and you'll be publishing in no time.

Images: FluxFactory/E+/Getty Images; Giphy