The internet is packed with "top lists" - articles featuring numbered lists of related items, organized to inform and entertain in a concise, clear way. There have long been "Top 10 Hits" music lists and "Top Bestsellers" articles in magazines or newspapers, but these days you can find a top five or top ten list for just about anything. There are even whole sites dedicated to outlining the top lists among top lists; a quick scan of one such site shows such obscure topics as "Fake Movie Trailers", "Irresponsible Online How-To Guides", and "Murder Ballads Based on Real Events".
Clearly, it's possible to write a top list about pretty much anything and get it noticed! So without further ado, here are the top 5 reasons to write top X lists:
#5: Revise, Re-Use and Recycle
Credit: Wikimedia CommonsIt's easy to update your lists to keep their relevance over time. If the lampshade you raved about in "10 Best Choices for New Year's Eve Headwear" is pulled from the ,market, it only takes minutes to yank it from its #1 spot, bump the others up, and add "Barney the Dinosaur Commemorative Baseball Cap" in as number ten. Or, say, the fad diet you applauded in "Five Ways to Lose Eighty Pounds in Two Weeks" is proven in a clinical study to cause spontaneous human combustion. It's easy to do the responsible thing and replace that entry with the new, safer "Yellow Construction Paper Two Meals a Day Plus a Sensible Dinner" routine without having to rework the whole structure of the article.
More significantly for those trying to generate writing in enough volume to make some real income from it, these lists often lend themselves to re-use over and over again. If the subject matter is inclined toward change over time - trends like music, say, or "best current products in this niche" - then you've got a built-in basis for a dated series of articles or blog posts. You might not be able to get away with "Twenty Most Important Historical Cavalry Battles of 2012", but "This Year's Best Female Celebrity Mustaches" is a definite annual possibility. The faster things change, the more often you can write about them: "Household chores I'm neglecting this month", for instance. If you're talking about something that's in near-constant flux, you might even be able to it more often. "Top 10 Viral Mutations in my Petri Dish Today" may seem unlikely to achieve vast readership, but somewhere there are probably science geeks who will eat that up. Figuratively speaking, of course. I hope.
#4: Writing in Easy Mode
Credit: Wikimedia CommonsTop Lists are easy to write; they can be cranked out quickly and usually without a lot of research time. Pick your subject, list the points you'd like to make about it, then pare it down to the ones you want to write about. It's usually best to go with multiples of 5 or 10, unless a specific number can be related directly, a la "Thirteen Ways To Bring Good Luck in the Coming Year". Remember not to try to squeeze in so many entries that the reader leaves your site in favor of "Ten Ways to Recover from a Bout of Sheer Boredom".
All that's left is to write a paragraph or two on each point, then wrap it in some short introductory and closing text, and you're done! It's so easy, I might even do it more than once!
#3: Easy, Natural Backlinks
Credit: Wikimedia CommonsThere are few better opportunities to build backlinks to your other work into a piece of writing than a Top List. Every numbered item is an opportunity to point to somewhere else in the "natural" way that makes search engines happy - links that occur in the flow of a larger body of text, linked from a wide variety of key phrases. This shows Google that the URLs you're linking to are likely to have real context and value. So when you write "Five Great Ways to Become an Overweight Recluse", don't forget to use item #1 - Massively Multiplayer Online Games - to link to your article about grinding legendary item experience in Lord of the Rings Online. Because, really, who doesn't need to know that kind of information? I can't think of anyone.
In fact, a Top List can be a good starting point for generating more writing ideas! "Fifteen ways to brush your teeth with mud" should generate and link to fifteen detailed tutorials on a vast array of wet-dirt-based oral hygiene practices.
#2: Controversy and Comments
Credit: http://xkcd.com/386/Now, you and I might both know that Dunkin Donuts' Toasted Almond deserves its spot above Wawa's Hazelnut in "Five Best Coffees from East Coast Convenience Stores". I mean, it should be obvious to anyone who's tried them both, right? But I guarantee that somebody, somewhere out there holds the misguided notion that the two were listed in the wrong order, and when he finds your blog post, he's going to submit a comment to tell you in no uncertain terms just how wrong you are. Other readers will chime in to correct the logical flaws in his reply; then he'll put out a call to fellow hazelnut aficionados to join the argument. Before you know it, the Hazelnut Anti-Defamation Association is issuing press releases condemning your web site, the American Association for the Protection of Toasted Almond is coming to your defense, and suddenly your site is featured in a local TV news report where the anchor opens with the words, "A battle is brewing..."
All the while, your article is getting all the attention and all the traffic this media circus generates. Of course, that might not seem so important when the death threats from members of the militant Irish Cream Militia start rolling in. Don't worry, though - that nasty stuff they drink doesn't give them enough energy to follow through.
... and the #1 reason to write Top Lists: People Like Them!
Take a skim through any social link sharing site like Digg and Reddit and you'll find top-fives and top-tens in abundance. Some high-traffic sites, like Cracked.com, do almost nothing else. David Letterman's nightly Top Ten Lists are the most-YouTubed parts of his show in spite of the fact that they're usually not even very funny. If you want your writing go viral, there are worse formats you could choose than Top List. (Yes, I know you poured your soul into that haiku on search engine optimization, but I'm afraid it's just not going to have the broad appeal you'd hoped for.)
This stems from the simple fact that people like lists. Even when they disagree with them, there's something attractive about an organized, concise list of someone's thoughts on a subject. Besides, who can say when "Creative Ways to Paint All Eleven Toenails" might become life-saving knowledge?
Ignore the nay-sayers!
Sure, some jaded, cynical individual might try to make a case against using the Top List format in your articles, but ignore that guy! He clearly hasn't thought this all through, and he probably even sometimes drinks Irish Cream flavored coffee. In fact, if I ever write "Five Infobarrel Writers to Avoid If At All Possible", he would earn at least the number three spot!