top-10Don't worry, I'm not going to tell you to format them with big bold headers.

(But you should totally do that.)

I've written and edited hundreds of list posts, and there's one thing I've learned about what makes them great. The best list posts have the right balance between list length and list item explanation.

First, let's define what I mean by those two phrases.

  • List Length: This is how long your list is, whether it's 3 items, 10 items, or 100 items.
  • List Item Explanation: This is how much explanation you offer under each item in your list, whether it's paragraphs of explanatory text, one sentence of explanation, or just an image (a la BuzzFeed).

The one thing you can do to instantly improve the quality of your list posts is nail the right balance between these two items. The reason this is so important is twofold:

  • A reader has a certain expectation of what they'll get when they see a list post.
  • It ties directly to the quality of the post.

Let's take this post, "3 Ways You're Not Using Marketing Automation (But Should Be)," and compare it to this post, "25 Clever Ways to Grow Your Email Marketing List." If you click into those posts, you'll notice the short list has extremely meaty explanations under each of its list items. If you check out the long list post, on the other hand, you'll see each item has only a sentence or two of explanation.


Because can you imagine how overwhelming it would be to read a 25-point list post if each item had paragraphs of explanation? It would take forever, and as a result, makes the post less valuable -- because hardly anyone's willing to read all that. It doesn't jive with reader expectation.

On the flip side, consider clicking into that 3-point list and seeing 1-2 sentences of explanation under each item. Wow. Way to skimp on the details, author. That post becomes totally useless. Not only is the content you've delivered misaligned with reader expectation -- it's poor quality, too.

How to Get the Right Balance

There's some room for interpretation here, but here's how I think of the right balance: Every list item should have some explanation; you should use the length of your list as a guide for how much explanation you should provide. Here are some benchmarks to guide you:

  • If your post is a long list (a good benchmark is anything over 15 items), you don't need to explain things so thoroughly (1-3 sentences should do).
  • If your list is short (a good benchmark is anything under 5 items) your explanations should be meatier (2-4 paragraphs).
  • If your list falls somewhere in between (a good benchmark is anything from about 6-14 items), your explanations can fall somewhere in between, too (4-6 sentences is good). Here's an example of a post like that, since we didn't cover it earlier.

Of course, these are just benchmarks, not hard and fast rules -- use your judgment on a post-by-post basis. Just remember: Don't leave your reader wanting way more, or way, way less. If you've probably got that balance down, you've got a good list post on your hands.

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Originally published May 1, 2014 11:00:00 AM, updated July 28 2017


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