Travel Writing: To List or Not To List

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That is the question.
That is the question.

Having just published “16 Places in Batanes That Will Make You Never Want to Leave (or Make You Start Planning Your Return ASAP!)” it may seem like I am firmly on the “to list” camp. Just look at that title: cardinal number – check. Exaggeration – check. I even added an exclamation point for an extra chunk of cheesiness. If I had sworn an oath I could not have made it any clearer where my allegiance lies.

It wasn’t too long ago, though, when I was firmly on the other side of the listicle fence.

A listicle, says Wikipedia, is "a short-form of writing that uses a list as its thematic structure, but is fleshed out with sufficient copy to be published as an article."
A listicle, says Wikipedia, is “a short-form of writing that uses a list as its thematic structure, but is fleshed out with sufficient copy to be published as an article.”

It wasn’t the quality of writing that I had an issue with. I don’t believe (like this guy here) that listicles are “lazy and shallow” and that people who write them “desperately needed the money.” It is true that listicles are a writing style that can be more easily “hacked” by the talentless; putting a thousand words together does take a wee bit more effort. That said, if you’re a bad writer, a longer format won’t make you better — it will just make you more insufferable. There is as much opportunity to write crap in long-form articles as there is in list-form articles. Length does not guarantee quality; brevity, even in list form, surely does not exclude it. (Read Carlos Lozada’s enjoyable review of Roy Peter Clark’s book How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times here.)

For some reason it’s often *these people who are very vocal about listicles destroying culture and making people dumb or whatever. Existential crisis much?

So why was I initially a listicle snob? I guess they were just too…mainstream for my taste. Everyone was writing them, everyone was reading them, everyone was sharing them on Facebook. I guess I just wanted to be different. (It’s like how I used to adore Benedict Cumberbatch until everyone started crushing on him.)

But then — once I got over my plebeian desire to be snobbish — I started thinking. Whether I like it or not, people like reading listicles, and they like reading listicles for a reason. (Steven Poole lists 9-ish of those reasons here.) As a communication tool, listicles work, and if my goal in writing is to communicate, it’s a format I shouldn’t outright dismiss just because it’s common. Besides some things really are better in list form. Humor pieces, for example, are particularly suited to the listicle format because: (1) no one likes a joke that takes 1000 words to tell; but (2) no one likes to click on a link just to read two or three sentences; so (3) a series of funny things provides the perfect payoff per unit of effort by the reader.

Travel writers are also prone to use (and abuse) lists. For one, much of travel planning lends itself to itemizing: things to do, places to see, stuff to pack and how to pack them.

I mean, a small tube of Colgate doesn't exactly cost the earth! But, hey, to each his own.
I mean, a small tube of Colgate doesn’t exactly cost the earth! (Or am I just too lazy? Okay.)

And then there is the travel write-up itself. Travelogues, I think, should be a bit more in-depth; ideally, there has to be something in them — a reflection, a mishap, a lightbulb moment — that differentiates the writer’s experience of, say, Paris from everyone else and their aunts’ experience of Paris. But for overviews, highlights, tips, and how-tos, lists are a perfectly acceptable format. (In fact, if you’re not going to make an effort to be engaging, I actually recommend you write lists instead.)

This is not to say that I have become crazy about lists or that I’m going to be writing nothing but listicles from now on. I still hope to eventually acquire the skill of writing paragraphs so compelling, dozens of them will go by without the reader sinking into torpor. What I’m merely trying to say is that listicles are a legitimate art form, and if you or I want to create one, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t. Certainly we shouldn’t hold back just because of what the literary upper-class might think.

“I have no cause to complain,” shrugged Tolkien once, “since I have similar opinions of their works.” In other words: haters gonna hate. In the end, the goal of every writer should not be to write long, but to write well.

 

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Travel Writing: To List or Not To List” was created by LSS for travel site Small-Town Girls, Midnight Trains. All rights reserved. | For Pie



9 thoughts on “Travel Writing: To List or Not To List”

  • Completely agree – there’s definitely a time and a place for listicles, and I have to admit that I find them easy, fun reading for the most part… and I’ve also realized that I never write listicles! Might have to give that a try!

    Also loving that you’ve paraphrased Tolkien with “haters gonna hate” hehe made my morning!

    • Haha! I hope that didn’t cause old JRR to turn in his grave. I really love that quote of his, especially because I didn’t quite expect it. Made me start reading other Forewords just to see what hidden gems pop up. 🙂 I was originally going to say “yes, you should try writing listicles!” but then it really just depends, I think, on what style each writer is comfortable in and WANTS to write in. You could write a listicle summarizing your “eat here” articles — your top 10, say — that should be fun to read and very useful for someone going to your part of the world. 🙂

  • I agree. I enjoy reading lists if they are written well. Sometimes they are much easier to read because they are concise. Often they can also be quite funny because it encourages the writer to be witty and straight to the point. That being said, too many of them and it gets a big old! (Livingtoat.com)

    • They do get old! And some of them are poorly written and it’s a challenge to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, because we’re inundated by so many of them. I think what’s called for is not to put an end to listicles, as some would like, but to improve their quality. Thanks for dropping by. 🙂

  • Well, I enjoyed your Batanes post so I must like this type of writing (listicle). Sometimes,I get lazy and I want the writer to “just get to the point and give me all the important details” rather than reading 2000 words. And sometimes I enjoy reading the whole thing, learning about the person’s detailed journey. I suppose it
    all depends on what you’re in the mood for that day 🙂

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