Q: Are longer lists are better than short ones?
A: [steam coming out of ears] I. Hate. Lists.
Elmore Leonard said writers should always “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”
If only we could identify those parts in advance, eh?
Well, some of them we can.
I hate lists.
They’re just plain lazy. And did someone say boring? Oh, you bet.
Bullet-pointed lists are meant to impress the reader, I suppose. Ooh—look at all the things! But to me bullet-pointing lists is like going to a networking event and throwing a big stack of business cards at a table full of strangers.
Would you ever be impressed by that? Ooh—hasn’t she been busy collecting cards!
Reader, I’m going to answer this one for you, because I know you’re not idiots. You would not be impressed by that. Not ever. Not only is it unhelpful—just like lists—it’s also downright rude. So don’t give your reader a bunch of things—tell them what’s special about each one.
Lists disguised as sentences at least show a bit more effort on the writer’s part. But they still lump everything together in an undifferentiated mass. If something is important enough for you to mention, it’s important enough for you to tell me why you’re mentioning it.
Longer lists are not better than short
If you insist on making a list, keep it short. And use what writers call The Rule of Three:
Wikipedia very appropriately offers three reasons this rule works. And they’re not presented as a list, either, so 10 points for Wikipedia:
The reader or audience of this form of text is…more likely to remember the information conveyed. This is because having three entities combines both brevity and rhythm with having the smallest amount of information to create a pattern. It makes the author or speaker appear knowledgeable while being both simple and catchy.
I added the emphasis there. Now let me translate it into a more readable form: Your list will be more memorable, being shorter. Three is the fastest pattern you can create, and patterns are always more memorable. Plus, you seem smart—while being memorable.
I’d add a fourth use for the Rule of Three, because establishing and quickly breaking a pattern is not only memorable, it can also be damn funny. Breaking the pattern with the third item in the list gets a laugh because the listener recognizes the pattern with the second item and before they even realize they’ve recognized the pattern, you go and break it. For instance, you might imagine a flight attendant going through the airplane asking:
“Would you like coffee, tea, or Xanax?”
I didn’t expect that. Funny!
Breaking the pattern on the fourth or fifth item will only get you a confused stare.
“Would you like coffee, tea, soda, juice, or Xanax?”
The list that ate my headline
Back in the day, I sometimes wrote press releases for a—well, let’s be nice here—an extraordinarily picky client. For a press release about a famous artist, I wrote a headline that mentioned three of this person’s most iconic works. The client added a fourth. And a fifth. Still not enough variety. Pretty soon the headline was a laundry list—one of the longer lists you’ll ever encounter. (Pro Tip: Headlines are not supposed to take up half the page.)
“I don’t like the headline,” the client whined. “It’s too clunky.”
“That’s because you keep adding things to it,” I said. “Keep it to three things and it’ll be snappier”—and I named the artist’s three most iconic pieces.
I don’t remember how many pieces we ended up listing in the final headline, but I think only one of my suggestions made the cut. When the media wrote about the release, though, guess how many pieces they cited? Yes, three. Because journalists know what they’re doing. They also know an iconic image when they see it; all three were the pieces I’d suggested to begin with.
Don’t mess with the rule of three, folks. It’s smart, efficient, and journalist-approved. Tempted to publish longer lists? Don’t say Elmore Leonard and I didn’t warn you.
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