Travel Writing: To List or Not To List
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.
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.)
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.
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.