5 Ways to Write a Really Useful List

Last Updated Mar 1, 2011 4:54 PM EST

Everybody loves a good list, right? In our time-starved world, numbered lists help readers (and writers) get to the main point while still allowing a little room for flavor. But to paraphrase Aristotle, too much of a good thing is not necessarily better.

In my last post, I compiled the "worst" of the "worst lists." Here's my compendium of five of the best "5 Best" lists of recent years - and what they tell us about how to do this thing right:

1. "5 Best Career Tips for Young People" (US News)

Too many "Top 5" or "10 Most ..." lists consist of things you or I could have thought of ourselves, given two minutes and an iPad. Not so these five tips, which were culled from the book, Generation Earn , by Kimberly Palmer. The advice is refreshingly counterintuitive ("Raise your rates") and pragmatic ("Free up your time and energy by outsourcing chores").

Lesson: Say something new

2. "The 5 Best Toys of All Time" (Wired)

This list of "best toys" include such time-tested classics as "Stick," "Cardboard Tube" and "Dirt." Yes, dirt. Not what you expected, right? Especially in the tech-geek environment of Wired. That's what so fresh about it: it's actually fresh. While seemingly tongue-in-cheek, the list actually says something profound about how technology can distort kids' lives.

Lesson: Be counter-intuitive

3. "Top 5 Best Complaint Letters" (The Telegraph)
Disgruntled customers are always a good source of dark online humor. (As United Airlines, among many others, can tell you.) This compendium includes a Chrysler Neon owner who wrote: "I don't want the car to explode while I'm in it. Frankly, I do want it to explode when no one is ...."

Lesson: When you can't be funny yourself, quote funny people

4. "The 5 Best Unintended Uses for the Apple iPad" (PC Magazine)

At the height of iPad mania last April, PC Magazine released a collection of five user-generated videos showing people employing their iPad as a cat toy and a golf tee, among others. In a subtle way, it helped put the hype in perspective.

Lesson: Where possible, include video

5. "MyFiveBest.com" (MyFiveBest.com)

This website describes itself as "User Submitted Trivia and Opinion." Users post their own lists of "five" things, which range from the serious ("Five Countries That Censor Your Internet") to the strange ("Five Animals That Have Been Used as Weapons").
Lesson: When you can't create ... curate

Do you have any favorite "best lists" to recommend?

Related: Martin Douglass is the pseudonym of an Emmy-nominated former TV and magazine writer who threw it all away to get an MBA. He currently toils anonymously in middle-management at a large Midwestern corporation.
Image courtesy of flickr user, jetalone

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