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February 19, 2008

7 Ways To Write With Numbered Lists

I’m guessing you’re familiar with the format of the numbered list.  And I’m guessing you’re familiar with the reasons why they work: engaging attention, presenting ideas in bite-sized form, using the specificity of the number as a hook.  But have you ever stopped to wonder how they help us write?

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. 

And last but not least you might find yourself obsessively composing numbered lists, yes, even in your sleep (or the bath) 

Writing with numbers isn't just writing a list

Fortunately there are ways that we can use the power of the list without making it obvious that’s what we’re doing.   You can use it as the frame for your work – intro, close and three paras in the middle.  You can use a list to add headings  – then take them away when the writing’s done.  Or maybe jot down a numbered list of points (whether it’s 3, 5 or 7) then work them into a paragraph – or even a sentence. 

All of those techniques will give your writing a structure, a rhythm, a satisfying sense of momentum – without your readers knowing how.

I’m not entirely sure how this works – and if any of you know please enlighten me! – but I think the pattern, rhythm and movement comes from the use of prime numbers.  That’s why you see 3, 5 and 7 used so many times. 

3 does have its own power and is particularly good for making points you want people to hold on to, remember and take away.

But there’s something particularly 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…

7 is also the smallest positive integer that’s more than syllable long. I wonder if that has something to do with its magnetic impact in headlines: the extra syllable creating extra movement.

I thought it might be interesting to unpick some of the ways I use numbered lists to help me write (although if you’re eagle eyed you’ll also be able to spot them worked into the construction of this piece).  They’re not all ‘obvious’ numbered lists, but numbers all feature in the composition.

7 ways that numbers help me write

#1 To expand on an answer

Example: 7 Ways That Travel Helps Us Write

This was a short post I wrote to answer an enquiry about the writing workshop we’re running in Sardinia.  I took my initial answer, sat down with a pen and paper and asked myself for 7 other responses to the question: how does travel help us write? 

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. 

#2 To generate ideas

Example: Revealed: What Bloggers Really Do In Bed

I wanted to write something special to promote SobCon08 (and to try and win the competition!) so I started with a ‘killer headline’, borrowed from the December Copyblogger-Cosmo headline writing challenge. 

Once I had the frame – something that bloggers do in bed – I then sat and doodled the different possibilities (counting sheep, waking with a start, having a nightmare) until I came up with 7… then linked them to SobCon (that was the easy part)

# 3 To get clear on the message

Example: Writing Well On The Web: A Ticket To Ride For LIPs

This was a guest post written for Lea Woodward at Location Independent.  My first draft was based a long numbered list which just didn’t work  - it wasn’t conversational enough for a guest post with a new set of readers, and I hadn’t done enough to create rapport. 

So I rewrote it into a more friendly, human piece, with the numbered list only coming in at the end to make three points that I hoped would be of value to LIPs.

# 4 To speed things up

Example: 14 Reasons To Love Fair Trade Chocolate This Valentines

Time is often of the essence and a numbered list can be your friend here – summarising your material, writing in shorthand rather than composing an essay, getting swiftly to the point.  I had a lot of research for this Giving Hands piece that I needed to compress and the list format helped me boil it down and get it written. 

I wouldn’t normally go for 14 but it was the obvious choice for the  Valentines theme.  Oh and I also used the list at the planning stage to pick out the most important points (again, ask yourself the specific question: what are the 14 most important points to make?)

# 5 To provide a framework

Example: 7 Ages Of Alice: Exploring A Multi-layered Book

A numbered list that you wouldn’t identify as such if it wasn’t for the headline.  I used 7 as the framework and then went looking through my notes, scribbles, ideas, quotes, extracts and memories for 7 different ages when Alice had ‘spoken’ to me or taught me something important. 

# 6 To highlight the most important words

Example: Writing To Sustain The Heart

This is another piece that doesn’t, at first glance, look like a numbered list, but does depend on numbers for structure, form and emphasis. 

Writing for The Calm Space is an interesting challenge for me because I never have any idea what I’m going to write until I sit down to do it!  As we write each month to a one-word theme the dictionary often helps me out, providing the hook or the frame which in this case was the idea that writing could sustain our hearts (the old-fashioned definition of heartstrings). 

Once I’d brainstormed how the act of writing helps heal our hearts I picked out the 8 most important words (in this example simple verbs) and used them to structure the piece.

# 7 To organise a lot of material

Example: Practical Tips For Business Bloggers: Introducing A New Series At BizBlogAngel

This example’s really about planning rather than writing and is great if you’ve got a lot of material to organise.  With a long list of topics for a new series of pratical blogging tips, I needed some way to organise it.  Again I ‘asked myself’ for 7 points I could use to structure it, then doodled different possibilities until the most useful headings came into view.


I hope that’s been useful – a bit longer than the piece I’d originally intended which was just to share the links to material I’d been writing elsewhere – but once I’d spotted the role numbers were playing I couldn’t resist exploring it further (and yes, if you look there are 7 dimensions to this piece). 

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?
  • Are there any elements of ‘writing by numbers’ you’d like me to explore further?
  • A question for Robyn McMaster: can you shed any light on how fixing on a number helps us to generate ideas, create new options, crystallise our learning?

This post is a kind of off-beam contribution to the theme of writing leaps and bounds at Confident Writing this month - though I'm pretty sure that using some of these techniques (wisely and carefully) can help you to stretch and grow your writing style, and maybe take a leap into a medium you hadn't considered before.

If you'd like some help in the way you compose or structure your writing I'm offering a 10% discount on my writing mentoring and writing critique services throughout the month of February for Confident Writing readers - which includes you!

Joanna Young, The Confident Writing Coach
Because our words count

Photo Credit: rgusick at Flickr

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Comments

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

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

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.

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.

@ 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

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

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!

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

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

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?

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.

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

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

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.

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

Joanna

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!

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

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.

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

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.

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

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