4 and ½ reasons why listicles are cancerous

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By Ray O’Reilly

Though they may go viral, like viruses (or even journalistic cancer), listicles are bound to kill off their host eventually.

Monday 2 March 2015

You’ve had a brainwave on the way to work: people don’t know enough about the merits of different stud types used in upholstering or the tantalising ways to spice up your relationship with your cat, or the tasty ways to dress a pavlova… Now what?

Social media wisdom says you should write down these fabulous ideas but not in a traditionally formulated article or in a format that requires concentration or the ability to retain a series of consecutive ideas, but rather in elaborated bullets commonly known as a ‘listicle’. And make sure you include a really long sentence as an introduction to show just how annoying properly formulated language can be before you launch your list of points that everyone can follow without straining much of anything.

Once you have your ideas, you need to decide how to list them, as a series of numbers usually needs explaining. And wikiHow helps here by telling us how to do this. Note: It is important when putting your listicle together to avoid original research, and to be sure to pepper your piece with unsubstantiated information ‘harvested’ from other online resources.

The “world’s most popular how-to website” offers three main ways to construct your listicle. You can rank the list, for example from worst to best, or deadliest, or most interesting, or least creepy, etc.. Alternatively, you can centre it around a theme, such as visiting relatives who live overseas. FInally, there are random lists, but this can apparently leave the reader irritated by the lack of conclusions.

How can you fail to become a successful listicler (yes, I made that up) with such advice?

“It’s so easy you wonder why everyone doesn’t do it until you realise that now it’s all they do: Come up with an idea… that won’t actually tax you at all as a writer/thinker; pen some short blurbs peppered with limp barbs… hit publish; watch the page views spike…” wrote one blogger mockingly.

3, 2, 1, listicle

This piece has surely already failed to keep most people’s attention with its six-paragraph preamble, so the only thing to do is to launch the listicle… and confound the doubters.

1 What listicism says about you: A listicle says “I’m really so clever at making banal things sound interesting… check this out!”, while serious writing calls for statements more like “I’m really so clever at making complicated things sound simple… and simple things sound complicated!” No wait, that got really confusing! See what happens when you try to ‘listicise’ (I made that up too) without a Listicular Handling Certificate.

2 Career-maker, heart-breaker: If you’re looking to build a career selling cigarettes to teenagers in Bangladesh, becoming a listicle guru is a good training ground. The trick is to make even sickening things seem alluring, things that would ordinarily have you struck off from a profession or worshipped by gorilla graffiti artists.

3 Dead-ends and citizen journalism: Everyone is a journalist nowadays… and thanks to the declining standards and pay scales to match, and the ever-flowing graduates from ‘communications’ schools worldwide, we have an eternal source of grateful interns to keep churning out content befitting the billions of communications experts hooked up to social media like drug-fucked monkeys in a lab. (I thought about ‘drug-addled’ but where’s the zing in that?).

4 Viruses and flesh-eating bacteria: One can only imagine that like viruses or flesh-eating bacteria, eventually listicles are bound to kill off their host and with it all hope of keeping up to snuff on the ten best uses for pretzels, or the 14 worst ways you can scrub shit off your trainers, or the four worst songs to follow the third song on a ‘best of’ album with 12 songs in total… I think you get!

Just cancer: It’s important in serious journalism to tie back somehow to your catchy title.

Our wikiHow friends offer a note of caution about listicles:

“The advice to write everything in bullet points so that the lazy online reader can spot the information without having to move any eye muscles works for many short blogs but it also fails to draw in serious readership and ultimately lacks journalistic integrity if it’s the only form of writing you rely upon. Think more highly of your readers and add listicles infrequently as a way to give them a breather from your juicier and more original writing.”

Expect an in-depth analysis on Chronikler of how listicles have lowered average IQs by X% and the most unlikely ways to grow mushrooms in a dorm room in full detail.

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Poetry, nonsense or what (not)?

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By Ray O’Reilly

Beauty, failure, enchantment, … you name the emotion and poetry’s got it. But this noble art is not for everyone. And it’s by no means easy to call yourself a poet.

1 August 2009

Of course

Silenced by the wall

Of conversation all around

Fighting the desire to seek

What has already been found

In the faces of all

Who stand before

You read your cues

And keep the score

On parchment furled

Of no known source

You type the world

And set your course


“Any good?” he asks me after I’ve read his poem.

“I’m partial to a rhyme,” I tell my friend, but for the rest I say I’m not sure.

We talk about the genre and how it’s may be coming back into vogue, what with the internet and recent programmes on the BBC about poetry. He issues me a challenge.

“Give me three words to describe the poem!”

“That’s too hard,” I say but I do like a challenge so I give it my best. “Nonsense, sense, whatnot,” I offer.

He pretends to be hurt and retorts:  “Shy, observing, judging”.

“Not bad,” I say. Now it’s getting interesting, so I have another go, a real one, this time. I reread the poem and scratch my chin in the appropriate pensive manner. “Foreign, fearful, running,” I say with conviction.

“Ah ha,” he exhales, “now we’re getting somewhere.”

This goes on for a while longer until we’re both exhausted being so erudite. I see the gleam of victory in his eyes, because he has ignited my imagination with his silly name game. I now understand the power of interpretation and he knows it.

So what?

The scene so described actually happened many years ago. My friend went on to become an advertising guru and published author who hides his poetry behind a pseudonym which I will never reveal (for less than six figures). I went on to become a much less illustrious man of words whose real identity I will never reveal (for less than three figures).

You could try to guess who my friend is. I’d give you kudos if you were thinking Alfons De Ridder (alias Willem Elsschot), the Belgian poet-author who famously hid his literary activities, which included the novels Cheese and Soft Soap, from his colleagues and family. Problem with that theory is, De Ridder is dead and published his 11 works between 1913 and 1946. Yes, I’m getting on in years, but I don‘t have World War stories in my repertoire. So guess again.

To De Ridder, who worked in advertising most of his life, the art of writing came easily, but he struggled with the world that encircled it. Known for his wry and economical style, especially in his breakout novel Kaas (1933), he once wrote to a friend [not me, you now realise] that cheese was just a pretext to be able to dredge things up from his own depths. No kidding.

This humdrum business of writing was an ideal canvass “to make something out of nothing”, he once wrote. “In art,” he astutely commented in the preface to Cheese, “there are no prizes for trying. Don’t try to swear if you’re not angry, or cry if your soul is dry … One may try to bake a loaf, but one does not try to create.”

[I like the loaf bit. I’m starting to get into this poetry gambit, so maybe it’s time to have a try myself. I can half-bake as good as anyone.]


Humbled by creation

Pregnant in its haste

Like bland unleavened bread

The fault is in the baking

Not the way it tastes

Ray O’Reilly

Come to think of it, may be “Not the ultimate waste” is a better last line. Surely, The Chronikler readers are sophisticated, poetry lovers. Tell me which ending you prefer.

This article is published here with the author’s permission. © Copyright Ray O’Reilly.

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