7 Ways That List-Making Helps You Produce Scholarly Work

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Image: Kevin Van Aelst

It’s easy to make fun of the form: "10 Ways to Spice Up Your Dog’s Love Life" or "87 Tips for Using a Q-Tip." Internet culture is awash in "listicles." You may hate them, but you also maybe kind of like them and sometimes find yourself clicking through the bait. If you’re over a certain age, you might see these lists as the end of intelligent writing, the triumph of the short attention span of the millennials. Or, if you’re truly superannuated, it’s possible you’ve never even heard the word listicle.

Listicles are a byproduct of the Age of Blogging, when everyone suddenly became a writer, able to get paid a few bucks (and I do mean a few) for providing content. Writing a listicle doesn’t require mad artistic skills. Usually that kind of article serves a narrow purpose, and readers will at least skim it if the teasers are juicy enough. Even historically stuffy publications like The New York Times have turned to listicles in an attempt to hold our diminishing attention spans. Thankfully, such publications usually don’t make you click on individual slides or suffer through a bunch of ads to see what comes next.

But here’s a thought for academic readers: Making a listicle can be a useful way of organizing a piece of writing — even a piece of scholarly writing.

This idea came to mind after a conversation with a friend who, as a professor of medicine and a physician, is involved in a giant study with 21 co-authors. He’d been trying to wrangle an article summarizing the significance of the work for a new treatment modality but said it was impossible to get useful feedback on a draft from all of them.

It occurred to me that one strategy might be for him to ask each of his co-writers to come up with a listicle describing what they viewed as the most important aspects of the study — something like, Top 10 Reasons This Study Matters. Silly? Maybe. But it’s at least a way to poll and condense the ideas of a pool of 21 academic physicians.

Here are some reasons a listicle might work for other academics — either as a tool before writing or a helpful way to revise. Listicles can:

Force a hierarchy. Making a list can be a way of triaging information, which is to say that unless you follow David Letterman’s old approach of starting from No. 10 and working up to No. 1, generally you begin with the most important points.

Sometimes in the initial brainstorming, when you’re corralling ideas and wrestling them onto the page, the order isn’t right. You can see that more easily when the ideas come in bulleted or numbered points than if you are struggling to sort through dozens of sentences you’ve already grown attached to, or paragraphs that lead down other paths.

Produce bold topic sentences. Too much academic writing is cowardly. We avoid coming out and making strong claims by hedging, qualifying, and meandering. When you write a listicle, you must make each point in bold. This is good practice for academics who tend to pad, wander, and get lost in our own thickets of prose.

With good listicles, the bolder, the better. You first want to grab the reader’s attention — and then give a more nuanced explanation. Basically, that translates to writing a great introductory sentence, followed by a meaty paragraph. You can flesh out each point into a section of an article or a chapter of a book.

Expose the trivial, the extraneous, and the gaps. Remember the old Sesame Street song that went, "One of these things is not like the other"? A listicle can help you spot the outliers. If you see that one item on your project listicle is not on the same level of importance with the others, maybe it needs to go, or be subsumed in another section.

If you’re trying to write a listicle about your project with a set number of points (like 10), it will be tempting to include things just to reach the goal. But if you’re adding something to fill a spot, it’s going to look like filler. And that’s also a good indicator that that particular content might not be worthy of inclusion in your manuscript.

In prose writing, it’s easy to get lost in the draft and omit important points. Glancing at a list can help to show what’s missing. Conversely, looking over a list can put on display ideas that don’t belong — things that may be interesting or bear further investigation but are not fundamental to the matter at hand.

Make your argument sticky. Owen Astrachan, a professor of computer science and a friend, once told me, "I teach in slogans." I’ve adopted that practice. Slogans are sticky. When students repeat them back you know they’ve remembered.

The same goes for writing. Draft a listicle of key points that might make readers want to keep reading. When you write each point, think about making the case in a way that the reader will remember. We’ve all had students who were impatient with nuanced explanations and just wanted the "takeaways" from a lecture. I have been that student, and no doubt so have you, listening to poorly organized conference talks. In your own academic writing, it wouldn’t hurt to keep the experience of the reader in mind.

Back up your ideas. Those of us of a certain age may have mild PTSD from learning how to write outlines as a kid. Because I often got all caught in the mix of Roman and Arabic numbers, the alphabet soup of caps and lowercase letters, I didn’t realize what a useful tool I was being taught.

These days, I tend to think by writing. (E. M. Forster: "How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?") So when I make a listicle of my main points, I prefer to back up each one in detail with paragraphs of prose. Doing this exercise can help you spot where you have the goods on a particular chunk of your argument — and where you don’t.

Offer a different kind of visual representation. In a previous column, I shared a writing trick I learned: Before sitting down to write a book or article, organize your ideas by making a PowerPoint presentation. I’m still a big fan of this strategy and think it can be terrifically useful. Just recently I used PowerPoint to organize a complicated book proposal. I color-coded different threads so I could see how to patch it together.

Before I did that, however, I created a listicle of the main points I was trying to make.

Make your argument immediately apparent to readers. It’s hard work to read through someone else’s draft. Often the points you think you’re making — the ones you believe are most important — get lost in a maze of long sentences that are completely clear in your head as you write them but then lose something on the page.

And that brings me back to where I started — a group of 21 academic physicians offering long assessments of an already densely written draft and forcing one person to make all of their revisions. Sounds like a time-draining, overwhelming, and thankless task to me.

But how about gaining their input via 21 listicles? That exercise might allow the key points to be commonly agreed upon and rise to the top. Listicles might allow the writers to compare what they all thought was essential, or at least to see where their disagreements lie. It would be easier than wading through a big sheaf of prose, and a lot more fun to discuss.

No, I’m not saying that listicles can be used in place of writing scholarly articles. Likewise, I’m always shocked to see people still using PowerPoint in conference presentations. They are useful organizing tools but not the same as producing polished prose or forceful lectures.

It’s hard to write a good book or deliver a good talk. I’m in favor of anything that makes that work just a little bit less painful

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