In case you missed the news, Listverse is officially a teenager. Among other issues, this helps explain its sudden mood swings, sarcastic tone and suspected drug use. Regardless, pumping out multiple daily lists for more than 4,700 days is quite an accomplishment – even more so considering the completely objective fact that the vast majority of online lists suck.
This site’s success – and my attraction to it as a writer – stems from a consistent quality over quantity ethos that emphasizes thought-provoking pieces over clickbait crap. Take your 10 Celebrity Dieting Secrets elsewhere, thank you very much.
But Listverse has done more than create learned loyalists from listicle skeptics; it has made me a more meticulous, creative and altogether better writer. Here are some skills writing for this site has helped hone.
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In the epic words of Tyler Durden from Fight Club: “You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake”. As a writer, that generally translates to the oh-so-special idea I just had for a Listverse piece already having been written several times for several outlets – often including Listverse itself.
One of the inherent challenges Listverse places before aspiring contributors is its own heft: over 13 years, the site has amassed a vast library of content covering topics from the mundane to the mesmerizing to the maniacal. The site’s very longevity – 13 years and counting – means there’s a good chance your seemingly fresh idea has been previously pitched and published.
This is especially the case for certain wheelhouse topics in which Listverse has come to specialize. Horror, murder, mysterious deaths, crime, weird coincidences… if you’re planning a list on serial killers, be advised that the chances of saying something that doesn’t already appear in Listverse’s cyber-catacombs is slim.
Over time, I’ve learned to skew pitches away from the commonplace toward issues less likely to have been thoroughly explored. The best lists turn everyday topics on their head, or dig so deep into a specific niche that fresh nuggets of insight are unearthed.
9 Facts: Check, Re-check and Three-check
Writing for Listverse provides regular confirmation that the Internet, despite being a treasure trove of minable data, also is a minefield of misinformation and manipulated half-truths. Separating the real facts from the fake news is an exercise in reliable sourcing, cross-check verification and, often, mythbusting.
I’m not just talking about the obvious stuff – the fraudulent sites designed to provide erroneous confirmation bias to political partisans. Such purposeful distortions have a driving purpose behind them: to sway public opinion and/or influence voters. That’s just par for the cyber-course.
No, I mean sites that literally have incorrect information for no reason other than, seemingly, laziness or stupidity.
I’ve almost taken the BS bait a few times. Researching a piece on eerie coincidences, I remember “learning” that Abraham Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy, and John F. Kennedy had one named Lincoln. I typed a few sentences before doing some more digging. Sure enough, it’s not true.
Another wrinkle that keeps Listverse writers honest is the audience. I’ve written for dozens of outlets, and Listverse stands alone for the gotcha-ism of its commenters. It’s to the point that, whenever one of my pieces post, pride mixes with hesitance as I scroll down to see what facts, if any, I managed to mangle this time.
8 Be Succinct
As a writer who has contributed opinion pieces to major daily newspapers, I’ve learned a thing or two about the value of brevity – typically via dramatically slashed edits from section editors confined to 600 or 700 words per entry, regardless the topic.
It is difficult enough to craft concise openings, detail-driven bodies and statement-cementing closings for standalone pieces. It can be even more daunting given Listverse’s format, which essentially challenges contributors to write ten themed yet segregated mini-stories that combine for a comprehensive whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Clunky segues, meandering side stories, wasted words: all must be eliminated to create the sort of thorough yet digestible articles that have become a hallmark of Listverse over more than a decade. I consistently find myself staring at a 15-word sentence and asking “can I say this in ten words without forfeiting quality?” And that’s exactly what writers should ask themselves, regardless their targeted outlet.
7 The WGAS Test
I love to write. I’ll hole myself up and write about anything – history, pop culture, writing itself (per this piece) – if time permits. I’m not given to oratory eloquence; my brain works best via my fingertips.
So like a lot of self-motivated wordsmiths, I struggle not with what to write but WHY IT SHOULD BE WRITTEN. And that brings us to the WGAS test, which demands an honest answer to the age-old question: “Who gives a shit?”
The acronym loomed especially large before I joined the regular pool of Listverse writers – before I built the now-casual back-and-forth with the editorial team that allows me to clear topics before committing to a 2,000-word piece that, otherwise, may never find a home. Here, Listverse’s uniqueness is an intimidating detriment; if the piece doesn’t get accepted, there aren’t a lot of similar sites to turn to next (I can think of one, it will remain nameless, and it neither pays nor shows as well).
For every idea I end up pitching, there are ten more that never leave my laptop. Listverse has helped hone my internal ability to thought-police myself, not in a manner than constrains creativity but rather insists upon clearing a hurdle of baseline interest before pushing forward with “Ten Fascinating Facts About Shoelaces.”
Simply put, if no one will read it, no one should write it.
6 Don’t Be Tempted by Tangents
Researching Listverse pieces often has a layered, peeling-away-the-onion effect in which nuggets of knowledge come with interesting side stories. For example, wile developing a recent piece on the modern-day death penalty, I came across the rather shocking fact that Thomas Edison held press conferences where he electrocuted stray animals, which I’m pretty sure wasn’t mentioned during my grade school field trip to his Menlo Park laboratory.
In such “WTF” moments, a writer is tempted to run down history’s hallways, to expand upon exactly what drove America’s most prolific inventor to fry Fido (and in public, no less). But with as broad a topic as the death penalty and only about 200 words per entry to cover it, a writer must stop and ask himself how relevant the extenuating circumstances are to the overall topic. In this instance, I decided to briefly mention Edison’s horrific hobby and save elaboration for a broader overview of the electric chair’s employment.
Writing for Listverse has made me pause before running down every corridor. As a result, I find that the lines I draw writing for a variety of other outlets are more direct. The less tangents the better.
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5 Take Criticism Lightly
My writing career has made me realize that the comment threads of many websites… are full of the types of folks who spend a lot of time on the comment threads of websites.
Certain niches are worse than others. As a recovering alcoholic with clinical depression, I’ve written for several sobriety and mental health websites. You wouldn’t expect those comment threads to be hotbeds of sanity… and you’d be correct. I’ve been on the receiving end of more stern, stupid lectures about my most prized possession – my nearly nine years of consecutive sobriety – than I can recall.
Parenting sites are just as bad, a landscape crawling with easily offended, participation-trophy clutching soccer moms who impose parenting purity tests they themselves would fail miserably. My first name alone leaves readers poised to pounce on any hint of perceived “toxic masculinity,” no matter how mundane the message.
Listverse readers have their own ways of needling. They are, in turn, masters of nitpicks, naysays and no-win-scenario scolding for whom finding fault approaches fetish. History-themed compilations have every detail dissected, while subjective lists (such as “Ten Funniest Movies of All Time”) are met with preference-fueled derision.
What I’ve learned is this: I can’t please everyone. So stop trying, grow thicker skin, and peruse reader feedback knowing most people just like to debate for debating’s sake – and that such comment thread contrarianism is part of Listverse’s allure.
4 Using Useless Knowledge
If I wasn’t blind as a bat, I’d try out for Jeopardy. Listverse has been a suitable substitute to impart my vast vault of superfluous facts and self-involved obsessions. It has provided an outlet for extensive expansion upon any number of topics that have fascinated me, often for decades.
For example, my uncle was a die-hard JFK assassination conspiracy theorist. Memories of his Dealey Plaza photos – pinned below a magnifying glass to identify the elusive “Badge Man” lurking in the shadows of the infamous grassy knoll – instilled a macabre yearning to learn as much about that fateful day’s events as possible. This intrigue only grew with the advent of digitally-enhanced footage, whose examination has taken me full circle to largely endorsing the flawed yet well-intending Warren Commission’s conclusion: Oswald did it.
I am also obsessed with all things 9/11. Fresh out of college, I was switching commuter trains below the North Tower of the World Trade Center precisely when United Airlines Flight 11 slammed into it. Rushing up to the lobby, I was among the first to evacuate the doomed buildings that day and, ever since, have a staring-at-a-train-wreck compulsion to learn what transpired in the ensuing 100 minutes. This includes a disturbing interest in those that jumped from the upper floors rather than burn alive.
Sharing my obsessions has been an exercise in exorcism, unraveling bundled thought threads while engaging readers – a writing win-win providing degrees of cohesion, closure and empathy.
3 Another Word For…
Per one of Stephen Wright’s wry one-liners: “What’s another word for thesaurus?”
Successfully crafting pieces for any medium – magazine, newspaper, website – means drawing upon an adequately robust vocabulary. Word choice matters, especially in settings where copy space is limited.
Contributing to Listverse throws an odd wrinkle into this thesaurus-centric mindset. This site often operates by a sort of “crush a micro-topic” mentality, in which writers are asked to produce 1,800+ words on a niche within a niche; controversial movie trailers, for example. To make a piece like that pop, a writer must meander through ten tightly-themed items while refraining from using the same words – movie, trailer, banned, controversy – over and over and over again.
Lest they submit a piece that reads like a robot wrote it, Listverse makes writers pause and ask themselves “what’s another word for…?” If thesaurus.com were Cheers, I’d be Norm by now. This consistent exercise in word substitution has enhanced and enlarged my toolkit of go-to verbiage spanning a broad range of topics.
2 Throw a Strange One In There
I’ve found that my best lists have at least one item that is particularly weird, wild or whacky – something that gives readers a real “oh wow” moment. The litmus test is simple: if it blows you away, it will probably blow readers away as well.
For example, I recently compiled a piece on tragic ironies. I had a few interesting items that, after searching Listverse’s archives, I knew hadn’t been prominently featured in any existing pieces on the site. I had the components for a pretty good list.
But not a GREAT list. I needed a cherry on top. And when I found it, I knew it. It turns out that, in 1994, one of the first major pieces exploring a then-fledgling terrorist organization called al-Qaeda featured an illustration of the then-popular Beavis and Butthead flying airplanes into the Twin Towers. When that premonition came to fruition seven years later, the first official casualty was FDNY Chaplain Mychal Judge (clip above). Beavis and Butthead were created by… you guessed it, Mike Judge. That’s one hell of a coincidence.
An offshoot of this concept comes when developing subjective lists – for example, the best rock groups of all time. Here, a hint is to throw in an outlier that you love but you know others won’t. Cue the contrarian comment thread, where you’ll be hung in effigy for suggesting, as I did, that Hole belongs in the top 20 bands ever. Remember: the goal of an engaging list isn’t to have everyone agree with you.
1 If It Isn’t Fun, It Isn’t For You
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I tend to write my lists in chunks. Over the course of about a week, I’ll set aside an hour or so each day to hammer out two or three items toward that magic number of ten. To some, that might sound like an obligation – another item on the lengthy to-do list of a 50-hour-a-week professional and father of a needy toddler.
But it isn’t an obligation. It’s an escape. For an hour each day, I get to set aside whatever mandatory middle-age matters that saddle my everyday existence, and focus on something that interests me. It’s a refreshing break, not an onerous obstacle.
My point is that writers love to… well, write. If you liken a 2,000-word list piece to a stodgy college term paper, this probably isn’t for you. If your approach to writing is procrastinatory rather than proactive, then you’re not a writer. You’re a person who can shuffle words into sentences, yes, but you’re not a writer.
Choosing a topic that simply doesn’t suit you also can dampen the experience. Generally, a successful Listverse piece is authored by someone who either has baseline knowledge of the given topic, or an honest interest in the subject that makes researching, digesting and developing the piece a pleasure rather than a pain. As a regular contributor, I’ve had the luxury to be honest when a proposed assignment might be better suited for another writer – and that’s made me more selective with other outlets as well.
Do your research, have fun writing, check your sources and for God’s sake run a spell check. Good luck, aspiring Listverse contributors.
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