7 Ways To Write With Numbered Lists

Writing with a numbered list helps you to connect with your reader: engaging attention, presenting ideas in bite-sized form, using the specificity of the number as a hook.

Prime numbers have a particular impact: they generate pattern, rhythm and movement. That’s why you see 3, 5 and 7 used so many times.

There’s something peculiarly satsifying about 7.  Muhammed Saleem had a good piece at Copyblogger a while back on 7 point lists – written from a social media perspective but also touching on the ‘magical’ power of 7.

You certainly can’t ignore its deep-rooted cultural significance: seven days, seven wonders of the world, seven deadly sins, seven ages of man, seven colours of the rainbow, seven seas, seven dwarfs…

Not everyone’s a fan of numbered lists of course, and there are downsides to using them. They can become formulaic, even boring after a while – for both your readers and your writing self. If you only ever write them out as numbered lists or bullet points your writing will take on a jerky, staccato feel which can break rapport.

Fortunately there are ways that you can use the power of the list without making it obvious that’s what you’re doing.

1. You can use numbers it as the frame for your work: intro, close and three paras in the middle. (A simple 5.)

2. You can use a numbered list to add headings as you structure and organise your work - then take them away when the writing’s done.

3. You can use numbers to generate a list of points (whether it’s 3, 5 or 7) then work them into a paragraph – or even a sentence - without the numbered list quality being in evidence at all.

One way to do this is to highlight a certain number of words. For example, make a start by brainstorming the topic you’re writing about, and generate a first draft of the text. Then go back into it and pick out a number of the most important words (7, 10, 12: you choose) - that might be powerful nouns or simple active verbs - and use them for emphasis, as headers, or to provide the structure for your article.

4. Use numbers to generate ideas, and answers to questions.

Take a question that’s been put to you and generate a set number of answers in response. (Seven is a good number to try, but you can take it right up to 100 if you want.)

Asking your mind (unconscious mind, muse, creative source, whatever you call it) for a specific number of answers will always generate more interesting results than if you just ask the question on its own.

5. Use numbers to organise

This is useful when you’ve got a lot of material to organise and don’t know where to start. Look over your material then ask yourself for 7 points (or another number of your choice, but 7 is good) that you can use to structure it. Then doodle different possibilities until the most useful headings come into view.

6. Repeat your points for emphasis

That might just be a question of repeating three points at the end: for emphasis, to close your piece, and offer a simple take-away.

7. Generate rhythm and a sense of completion

Writing this piece through the prism of seven helps to generate a sense of balance, structure, and rhythm. Using the prime numbers generates a satisfying sense of beginning, middle, and end - and offers an appropriate place to stop ;-)

I think I’m only scratching the surface as to how this works though so I’d love to hear your own perspective and experience:

  • What’s your reader perception of numbered lists – love them or hate them?
  • Do numbered lists help you to write?
  • If so, do you have a favourite number?

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27 Comments

  1. Thanks Joanna for this article, it’s really well written and very fascinating. One of your best.

  2. Thank you very much Fran.

    I put quite a lot of work into it but I enjoyed ‘unpicking’ this element of the writing process and hoped people might find it of interest

    Joanna

  3. Jim Murdoch · · Reply

    I have to be honest I tend to prefer bullet points to numbered lists. I’m actually working on one right now. Numbers suggest priorities or sequences and I seem to shy away from grading my points. I guess it’s like the ingredients to bake a cake, they’re ALL essential even though the quantities may differ radically though I suppose one could also argue that they need to be put into the mix in a specific order.

  4. CatherineL · · Reply

    Hi Joanna - this is a great post and it’s true, numbered lists really do help to give your posts clarity sometimes.

    And the number 7 works doesn’t it? I have no idea why it does work, but I’ve tried it on price testing and £47 gets more sales than £45 for the same product - even though it costs more.

  5. @ Jim, I know what you mean, numbering can suggest a linearity or sequencing that we don’t want to apply. It does depend on the context I guess - and sometimes it makes it easier on the reader to include the numbers.

    But what I realised when I was writing this is that you can still work to a set number of points (to get the sense of balance and structure) and then take them away again to soften the effect, or like you say to avoid the impression of over-ordering.

    @ Catherine That’s very interesting! I wonder if it has something to do with perception too. My mind seems to do some kind of rapid calculation around £47 that says it’s close to £50 but still a good way off - therefore a bargain!

    Joanna

  6. Lynn Gaertner-Johnston · · Reply

    Joanna, thanks for this fascinating piece on numbers. I had not thought about it so deeply.

    I love numbered lists. I am inspired by the typical brevity of the items in them. I never think of them as ranked unless the author says they are steps or ranked items.

    One way I choose the number of items in a list is by sound, for example, 8 ways, 6 tips, 7 solutions. The right number-unit combination can lead to a nicely flowing title.

    Thanks for your always generous writing.

    Lynn

  7. Brad Shorr · · Reply

    Hi Joanna, I developed an aversion to numbered lists from years of sitting through PowerPoint presentations that started out with a slide like, 35 Ways to Increase Sales of Duct Tape. You knew you were in for at least 35 more slides … so like Jim I grew fond of bullets. But as usual, Joanna, your ideas are intriguing, so I may have to re-think numbers!

  8. Brad, you are funny. I can just imagine that presentation on duct tape now!

    I do think numbering helps to provide structure though - if you think to the book you reviewed recently on powerpoint slides the idea (as I understand it) is not just to tell stories, but to use numbered structures like beginning, middle and end, or a 5-act story that includes a turning point and resolution?

    By the way, for anyone reading the comments, here’s a link to Brad’s review, which includes a great cartoon reminder of how *not* to use numbered lists!!!

    http://www.wordsellinc.com/blog/copywriting/praise-beyond-bullet-points-ive-seen-the-light/

    Joanna

  9. Lynn, how nice to hear from you.

    I’m a fan of brevity too - maybe that’s what draws me to the format (though not if it’s 35 ways to increase sales of duct tape!)

    Your point about the sound of the number is most interesting - it touches on the idea I had that seven might have something ‘extra’ because of the extra syllable - but also a deeper point about the importance of sound and rhythm in our writing.

    Something I’m only starting to properly understand and appreciate.

    Thanks again for stopping by

    Joanna

  10. Brad Shorr · · Reply

    Joanna, thanks for the plug on my cartoon and post. You are right about the BPP system - the storyboarding is very structured, although numbering bullet points is not necessarily part of the equation. Would you agree that an important factor in deciding whether to use numbered bulled points in presentations is the audience? If, for example, you’re presenting to (or writing for) a group of accountants, numbering obviously makes sense. But if the group is sales people or artists, maybe it’s better to to avoid numbered lists. What do you think?

  11. I’m printing this one off, Joanna! It has come at a point where I’m really struggling to write a numbered post, which I’m determined to tackle this week. Thank you for your incredibly timely advice :-)
    PS I gave it a stumble too.

  12. Brad, what I meant was that numbers feature in the composition of the presentation - you have to get clear on your 5-point structure or your three most important points before you start work on it. Not that you’d need to include them in your actual slides.

    I think the audience is key but I’m not sure I’d limit it by profession - more what they want to know, what they’re likely to be interested in. And I’m struggling to think about who would ever be interested in 35 uses of duct tape…

    Certainly not in a presentation format where the client has no control over the delivery of the information. If I give you 27 ways to write like Hemingway on one sheet of paper you can read it in 2 minutes or save it and go back to it time and again.

    Actually I think that’s what I’d do with the 35 uses of duct tape - one sheet of paper for future reference

    Then I might make the presentation 35 ways not to use duct tape - with pictures of inappropriate usage, aimed at making you laugh. Then you wouldn’t mind the 35 - in fact you might look forward to what was coming next. You might well remember that there were 35 ways you shouldn’t use it.

    In a presentation I’d say if you want people to remember something though you need to limit it to three, numbered or not.

    Joanna

  13. Hi Amy, I’m glad it came at a good time.

    I’d encourage you to see numbers are your friend - set yourself a number and ask yourself for the ideas, or the words or the tips that go with it.

    Once you’ve got the raw material you can then decide how to use it and whether and how to feature the numbers.

    You can always edit them out again - but your piece will have a different feel and structure from *planning* it with a numbered approach.

    Joanna

  14. Hi, Joanna, you asked me a very intriguing question… And it deserves a thoughtful answer. I’ve already been chewing on this… Hmmm… let’s see how I’ll present a response. A numbered format isn’t usually my favorite, but since you told me you had seven in mind and that your brain worked until you reached seven, there’s now doubt I’m up to that same kind of challenge! It’s too good to miss.

  15. Thanks Robyn, I look forward to what you come up with!

    Joanna

  16. Talking Story with Say Leadership Coaching · · Reply

    How Writing Flow Can Happen For You Too ~ 9 Ways

    Aloha everyone, This is somewhat off-topic to talking story and better conversations, however Talking Story has been reborn for me this year as my personal blog so here goes… you can skip it if learning to love writing is not

  17. Hi Joanna, this took a bit longer than I expected, but I now have the response posted! And, it is done on leap year day - the 29th. Maybe that’s my lucky number!

  18. Robyn, it was well worth the wait. Your post was fascinating, and as usual has stimulated even more ideas and questions in my mind, not to mention some blogging challenges!

    For those of you who want to explore the issue further, please pop over to Robyn’s site for her post on “your brain on numbers”

    http://brainbasedbiz.blogspot.com/2008/02/your-brain-on-numbers.html

    Joanna

  19. Joanna, I put that in the backburner of my mind before I brainstormed. Once I knew where I was headed, the rest fell into place.

    I love your questions. They keep my brain primed…

    Thanks for sharing my blog here.

  20. Robyn, I am glad we can prime each other’s brains!

    I’ll happily point readers to your blog, it’s a veritable treasure trove of accessible brain information.

    Joanna

  21. Great article. I love writing numbered list articles.I find they sell quite well. Another favourite of mine are the “do’s and don’t's” articles. They’re just so fun to write.

  22. Hi April, it’s nice to meet you.

    I’ve only done one “do’s and don’ts” here but you’re right it was a lot of fun, and one of my most popular articles.

    Thanks for stopping by :-)

    Joanna

  23. I always read your blog in high spirits. Thanks :)

  24. [...] PPPS It seems I am still a fan of numbered lists [...]

  25. [...] I did however think it might be useful to share some of the things that worked for me, and bundle them into a list post (because I still love list posts.) [...]

  26. 16 Brilliant Bloggers Talk About List Posts — BlogWorld & New Media Expo Blog · · Reply

    [...] 7 Ways To Write With Numbered Lists by Joanna Paterson [...]

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