With spring now in full force, we expect (long for!) warm and sun-kissed days. The Victoria Day long weekend is often a time to prepare for this year’s garden (if not actually to do the planting . . . remember last month’s freak snowfall!)
But the frost from last winter that lined my office window for months is all forgotten. A few streaks remind me that I need to wash windows again (lol)! . . . . The brilliant sun cheers me, as I write another busy month of your marketing and communications materials.
Last month’s issue featured Anne Lamott’s and Dave Burdeniuk’s insights into writing and communicating. Thank you to those of you who sent me comments on those articles.
This month I plumb some of the depth of the online e-magazine, “The Freelancer, by Contently,” first recommended to me by freelancer, Ashleigh Mattern. This time I discuss the sometimes annoyingly reductive but prevalent form of “listicle” writing; I’ll visit one expert’s “top six” podcasts on writing across all disciplines; I’ll return to wordsmithing with etymologist Bryan Garner; and I’ll update you on sundries in the usual “Shop News.”
Enjoy this issue and happy mid-May!
Principal, Elizabeth Shih Communications
What Do Listicles Have to Do with ‘Real’ Writing? Freelance Writer Nicole Dieker Weighs in . . . .
After featuring long articles on the psychology of creativity and artistic production recently, I’m sharing insights in this issue on a somewhat less ambitious topic: “listicles.” I’m sure that your inboxes, social media and online subscriptions will have been inundated with them: they are articles written in the form of a list.
A mentor and friend recently observed the prevalence of list-based articles that ostensibly address many aspects of business. She noted how reductive they can be, particularly when they claim to address complex fields or topics. In business (not to mention life), so much occurs by complicated processes that cannot be reduced to lists.
But American freelance writer Nicole Dieker adopted another perspective recently (in “The Freelancer by Contently,” an online journal, March 31, 2015).
In her article, “As a Journalist, Should Writing Listicles Bother Me?,” Dieker replies to a reader’s inquiry as to whether list-oriented writing is a dead-end for aspiring writers.
She says that some “listicles” are “pure clickbait,” because they’re superficial and don’t back up their claims with reporting or research. What’s important about list-based articles, she says, “isn’t the format, it’s the content – and that’s the part that comes from you,” as the writer (1).
Dieker explains that the term “listicle” first appeared around 2004 and that the format has risen in popularity ever since. She argues that the “pejorative” value that the form carries is “undeserved.”
With an irony that is not lost on her (or me), Dieker provides a list of several (I’ll include five) reasons why “listicles” can be useful projects, why they can be rich in value and how they can help launch freelancers into the work that they want more:
(1) She observes that listicles can be worthwhile, since reputable publications use them. From The New York Times, she cites a March 5, 2015 article on art: “Analyzing the Elements of Art: Six Ways to Think About Shape.”
My local daily, The StarPhoenix, regularly features listicles, such as in the April 25th article, citing “five dream interview subjects” of Shad, the new host of CBC radio’s “q.” Shad’s “dream . . . subjects” include Kanye West, Joseph Boyden and even Prime Minister Harper.
Our national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, relies on a more highbrow version of list-writing, using pull quotes and and subheads to organize their lists, such as in Augusta Dwyer’s April 25th article, “When the CRA Comes Calling” (B4). Dwyer’s article on the auditing of businesses by CRA features an offset list of business expenses or practices most scrutinized by the government. Unnumbered lists occur in some of the newspaper’s other articles, too, notably in the travel and health sections. When the information is credible and informative, as it is with the above cases, I agree with Dieker that “good publications will do good listicles.” Not listicles alone, mind you, but lists that will complement or support longform articles.
(2) Dieker notes that journalists have “long used lists” to structure their stories and “they’re usually effective.” Dieker cites Steven Poole, of the UK’s The Guardian newspaper, as joking that the “Ten Commandments” and Martin Luther’s “95 Theses” posted in Wittenberg were early listicles.
Plenty of contemporary examples exist in full book length. (Dieker cites Steven Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.) One that is familiar to me is Slaunwhite, Gandia and Savage’s The Wealthy Freelancer: 12 Secrets to a Great Income and Enviable Lifestyle (2010). But to be fair, none of these contemporary business listicles have garnered the interpretation and discussion of Old Testament Theology or Protestant history!
(3) Lists are easier and faster to read than traditionally organized paragraphs. I would add that when so many readers today skim read, online, lists are bound to be used.
Dieker notes the commercial reality that listicles also invite ad revenue if they are structured as a “slideshow format,” online. The current trend in listicle writing is to use an arbitrary or random-looking number, such as seven or nine (instead of, say, 10), to pique readers’ curiosity.
But for more serious academic, business writing and journalism, listing items or ideas fails to connect the knowledge between the points–so coherence and complexity are lost. The list propels readers along, while discouraging them from thinking about the gaps between the points.
(4) Dieker argues that writing listicles early on can prepare writers and journalists to write longer “narrative articles,” later in their careers. Writers who work in the trenches with listicles build connections with editors that can turn into opportunities for “more substantive” pieces. Fair enough: most writers have written at least one listicle for publication. But the decision of whether to include it in their portfolio will likely depend on which editor they’re pitching to.
(5) Dieker validly argues that the writing world has “changed dramatically over the past decade and will likely continue to shift as publishers evolve” (3). Professional writing now includes “everything from 3,000 word reported articles to 50-word slideshow captions, and new technology and social media will give us additional ways of sharing news, quotes, quick facts and lists” with readers. Given the changing formats of communication, writers can’t afford to ignore list-based writing.
As social media becomes integrated into various platforms, Dieker notes that writers may need to combine “longform and shortform work,” in the same project. Old boundaries and divisions may collapse. She concludes: don’t let “good [writing] opportunities . . . pass you by” because of outdated standards or snobbery.
Listicles are not necessarily arbitrary collections of ideas. But the coherence and complexity that they often fail to provide remains for me (if not for Dieker) the greatest a limitation of their form.
Have you asked your freelance writer(s) to prepare listicles recently?
If you are a writer, what do you think of writing listicles?
Have you recently found list-based articles useful for promoting your goods or services?
Nerd Alert! Word Nerd’s Corner: “Mass” and “Count” Nouns with Bryan Garner
When does a speaker or writer use “much” and when do they use “many?”
“Many,” Etymologist Bryan Garner writes, “is used with count nouns (i.e. those that denote a number of discrete or separable entities)” ( Usage Tip of the Day,” Oxford UP, March 25, 2015).
By contrast, he writes, “Much” is “used with mass nouns (i.e. those that refer to amounts as distinguished from numbers).”
Therefore, “many people” would be correct, but “many salt” would be incorrect:“We do not have many [should read “much”] salt in the soup” (my example).
Examples? “I recommend him much” is correct (if somewhat stilted sounding). Similarly, “I recommended many issues of the magazine to her” (is correct).
Similar to the “much”/”many” distinction are the terms “fewer” and “less,” respectively.
“Fewer” is used with count nouns, as is the case with “many.”
“Less” is used with mass nouns, as is the case with “much.”
Many people . . . .much salt . . . fewer people . . . less salt
Please share your etymological bugbears or tips with me, for an upcoming issue! I’d love to share this column with you.
From an Expert…
Who: Freelance Writer Aja Frost
Where:’The Freelancer by Contently’
When: March 23, 2015
What: ‘Six Great Podcasts for Freelance Writers’
These days, there are far too many great podcasts out there to be able to listen to them all. But freelance writer Aja Frost recommends six gems in a recent article.
Currently, I’m working through her list in my spare time. Here they are, with brief summaries of her synopses and my observations:
(1) ‘Writer’s Bloc‘: Ostensibly about writing for comedy on television, each episode of this podcast features an interview by J.R. Havlan (a veteran writer for “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”) with comic writers, focusing on how they became interested in comedy, the different writing contracts that they’ve held and how they landed their current posts.
Frost says that the podcasts include insightful and “fascinating details with plenty of useful takeaways for any aspiring writer” (1).
The writing tips often apply to any format of writing (crossing boundaries, as I have been doing, in this e-newsletter).
is a weekly podcast about the “craft and careers” of nonfiction writers. They are journalists who publish prominently in The New York Times, GQ, Fast Company, and others.
Frost says that these writers reveal what goes on behind publication, during the writing process, explaining how they get their ideas, pitch them, do research, work with editors and respond to public reaction.
The podcast also addresses ethical issues, like authorship or naming sources, how to work with a difficult editor and more (Frost 1).
With a focus on journalism, such as an interview with media critic Jack Shafer of “Politico,” this podcast illuminates how well-known writers deal with everyday writerly issues.
(3) ‘A Little Bird Told Me‘
is hosted by Phillipa Willitts and Lorrie Hartshorn, who address “the highs, lows and no-nos” of self-employment, as a writer.
Both hosts reply to listeners’ questions, ranging from the basic to the sophisticated. I agree with Frost that this podcast is less polished than its peers, but it’s rich in content. The podcast discusses disability and vulnerability as opportunities for writers to fight stigma.
(4) ‘99U Podcast‘ is an unofficial guide to life as a freelancer. Host editor Sean Blanda investigates the creative processes of “leading makers, thinkers and entrepreneurs.”
Episode topics range “from practical to philosophical” (Frost 1). One excellent episode features Jim Hopkinson, of salarytutor.com, who explains how to negotiate for more money as a writer, including tangible ways to prepare for difficult salary negotiations.
(5) ‘The Moth‘ is a nonprofit that is dedicated to non-fiction storytelling, in which people tell personal stories to a live audience (the podcast consists of a few of the best of these performances).
Frost notes that topics range from funny to tragic and across all ethic and subject areas–for instance, one talk features Sisonke Msimang, the daughter of a South African Freedom Fighter and an accountant, who shares her experience befriending a HIV+ woman, before treatment options were known.
(6) ‘High Income Business Writing‘: Hosted by Ed Gandia (a former B2B copywriter, now a coach who helps freelancers to build their businesses), this podcast gives “guidance related to the practical and financial aspects of freelancing” (Frost), such as what to include in a contract, how to maximize SEO for a personal website, how to get better clients, etc.
Gandia (along with my coach from years ago, Steve Slaunwhite) is a co-author of The Wealthy Freelancer and in the past has hosted “The International Freelancers’ Day.” Gandia’s information is sometimes better suited to the US market, but he’s still powerful and worth listening to.
When reviewing these podcasts, I’ve been impressed by their depth and by Aja’s Frost’s insight in promoting them. You’ll glean much more depth and coherent knowledge from listening to these than from, say, conventional listicles in the worlds of marcom, PR or journalism.
Individual self-motivation and enterprise are the foundational concepts that undergird these podcasts on the many forms of writing.
More and more, interactive education from online sites and podcasts is supplanting traditional study. What do you think is gained and/or lost?
When you hire a freelancer, do you ask them what podcasts they use to inspire them?
What podcasts do you use in your own business or non-profit?
Please respond through the “contact” page of my website at www.elizabethshih.com . I’d be delighted to hear from you!
To subscribe to this e-newsletter, please visit the “Newsletter” page of my website:
In late April I was fortified by conversation with mentor Monica Kreuger (Founder/CEO of Praxis School of Entrepreneurship and President of Global Infobrokers). Monica spoke of the limitations that list-writing can cause in business (see article one). And once again, she helped me to stoke the flames of my business. (Thank you, Monica!)
Also this month, I appreciated Barry Berglund’s presentation on sales strategies to the Raj Manek Mentorship Program. Barry shared his career-long experience in directing sales for CTV and Bell Media. He stressed that the “hard sell” is dead and that “the fortune is in the follow up,” whichever method of prospecting one uses.
Apart from the freak snowfall that immobilized Saskatonians on April 25th, I continue to enjoy the clear sidewalks of our Meewasin Trail, where geese, robins and ducks have all returned! It’s such a joy to see local wildlife out basking in the sun, when winter’s hoary breath has gone.
About Us . . .
Since 2011, Elizabeth Shih Communications has provided B2B marketing and communications services on the Prairies and across Canada.
Do you need help writing your “marcom” materials? Please contact me through my website, via the CASL-compliant email form, on each page at www.elizabethshih.com.
Once I have received your permission, I’ll be delighted to discuss projects with you!
I help small- and medium-sized businesses create e-newsletters and related communication that secure good clients. Please visit my website for more information (www.elizabethshih.com).