I’ve been writing these essays for nine months now and, over that time, my audience has slowly and steadily built. I emphasize slowly. It is not without pangs of jealousy and waves of self-doubt that I have extended my sincere congratulations to Millennial friends who, after a few blogs posts were picked up by the Huffington Post, parlayed that into a million+ followers and from there signed a book deal. I am happy for them. I am.
People who love me and wish me well have suggested kindly and in a truly helpful manner that I should include a list in my essays, a way to turn my thoughts into easy action for my readers. Just as kindly I have thanked them for their helpful suggestions and seethed silently, muttering to myself about the decline of education and attention spans and critical thinking skills. If following the steps on a list could solve complex problems then we would all be slim, in perfect relationships and have shiny hair and tight abs.
My first truly negative reaction to a list took the form of an irate letter to the editor, written when I was 17, and believed that Cosmopolitan magazine was my bible. At that age I knew that I was going to live in New York City some day and live the life of the Cosmopolitan Girl. Then the cover line appeared that soured it all for me: “72 Ways to Jolt A Man into Loving You Again” and every budding feminist sensibility I possessed was offended. I dashed off a letter to Helen Gurley Brown explaining to her why we didn’t need this sort of advice; instead, we should go find a man who deserved us. She didn’t respond. My love affair with Cosmo turned into a “we can only be friends” relationship.
But I am clearly pushing a rock uphill. There is a great deal of psychological research along with folk wisdom on why lists offer an effective format for communicating ideas. In fact, a quick Google search reveals myriad articles of lists on lists such as, “A List of Reasons Why Our Brains Love Lists,” By Maria Konnikova. Lists provide attention-grabbing headlines, are easy to skim because they are chunked for the reader, quick to read and easy to share.
So for this essay I offer you my list of the 10 Most Important Reasons I Don’t Usually Include a List:
1. My entire purpose in writing is to get people off of autopilot. Management is hard; people can be wonderful and stupid at the same time. Providing a list pretends that the answers are easy.
2. Lists are like a “How To…” manual and for some reason I am not good at “How To…” because, for me, the answer is always, “It Depends.”
3. Even when I follow a “How To…” manual to the letter (I think) my idiosyncrasies cause me to get a different result. When I painted my second floor study, I somehow got paint on my car, two floors down.
4. Lists encourage people to read the headline and believe they have learned something. Deliverance is in the details and the nuances and the interpretation.
5. There is a place for readers of Popular Mechanics and for readers of the New Yorker in this world. Neither is better than the other and there may be considerable overlap among the audiences. The publications offer different things. I would like my writing to be on The New Yorker side of the equation or more like an opinion piece in the newspaper than the how-to article in a service magazine, even if that means it attracts fewer readers (I don’t really mean that; it should attract even more readers!).
6. I’ve been ashamed to admit that I have a stack of unread New Yorkers by my bed. Even I prefer reading short, chunked pieces that chop information into bites. But I don’t learn very much that way.
7. When I write about unconscious bias in the workplace or other complex, difficult topics, I feel righteously indignant when someone offers a list to address it. If only it were that easy. By offering a list, it feels like it gives the reader permission to not worry about this issue any longer.
8. Most of my essays are about 1000 words long. The last time 1000 words felt really long was in 8th grade, when the entire class was punished for behaving badly, by the assignation of a 1000 word essay on why respect is important in the classroom. Writing that was torture and I counted every word. I hope my current 1000 words are not so tortuous but come on, people; it’s only a 1000 words. It won’t kill you! It doesn’t need to be cut into small bites.
9. Lists are like the fast food of information. They are limited in content and context and complexity. While they don’t take much time to consume, they also don’t offer much nutritional value.
10. Even in my list essay I have failed to produce a decent list. It has no headlines, no information chunking. It is 10 small, whiny paragraphs telling you that my way is better and filled with arrogance and condescension. I am bad at lists.
I guess I won’t hold my breath for that book deal. I still have a lot to learn about how to properly build an online audience. I have a lot to learn about many things.
“You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche