From list to listicle

A 6-step plan for developing a list into an article

By William Love, Sandpoint High School

Listicles are hot right now. But how do you stress to students the importance of the “icle” over that of the “list” to students?

Since I started teaching six years ago, I have encouraged the Cedar Post students to consider listicles as a way to report a story. However, I never formally taught using a listicle for reporting in any of my intro-journalism classes until this school year.

A frustration I’ve noticed when I suggest to a student to consider a listicle is the lack of details and/or storytelling in the final product. Often times, the listicle is just a list.

CP List Example
A list about favorite workout music from a 2014 edition of the Cedar Post.

That works, but there is the opportunity for so much more. I decided this year I wanted to devote a couple of weeks to teaching the listicle. An important aspect for me in this unit was the development of a list into a piece of reporting that could be considered an article.

The “list is just just a scaffolding for a story. It’s just a way of organizing information,” said Buzzfeed’s Jack Shepherd in a NiemanLab article from 2013. He also described most listicles as “Things where there’s no narrative driving it.”

Ah, narrative. That’s it! I want my students’ listicles to have a sense of narrative through reporting and storytelling.

But how do you accomplish this with freshmen? Here is my attempt to make the “icle” in listicle stand out with an intro to journalism class.


STEP 1: Introduction to listicles

We spent time learning what constitutes a listicle and identifying ways they are different than a list. A couple of articles I used included David Lenhardt’s In Defense of the Listicle and Rachel Edidin’s 5 Reasons Listicles Are to Stay, And Why That’s OK.

Lenhardt’s defense includes an example of a “smart” and “nuanced” listicle called Simple Rules for Eating Healthy by Aaron E. Carroll. I agreed with Lenhardt’s assessment when I read the article and determined this as a great jumping off point for comparing a listicle with a list.

I first asked my students to look at this list from a Vox article about the top states for biking and determine how much information they gained from it.

Vox List
This graphic appeared in a article.

I then showed them a portion of Carroll’s story and asked how much information they gained from it.

Listicle Example
This listicle example comes from The New York Times.

Pretty easy to tell the difference, right? My students definitely did.


STEP 2: The List

I showed the students more examples of listicles from several different sources to illustrate that listicles are appropriate for any topic. (I went as far as to suggest they propose writing a listicle instead of a five-paragraph essay for their English or History class.)

After reviewing the examples, I asked the students to think about something they could write a listicle about. Once they thought of a topic, they compiled a list (just a list) that consisted of at least 10 entries.

  • What is a subject that you would like to write about but would also be appropriate for the Cedar Post and useful to its readers?
  • Come up with at least 10 items for your listicle. It will probably be paired down, so don’t worry if you don’t feel comfortable with it.


STEP 3: Developing Paragraphs

We then deconstructed a paragraph from Carroll’s listicle to see the amount of detail he included. I stressed that Carroll’s suggestion to readers are based on facts.

Listicle Paragraph
The paragraph is from a listicle that appeared in The New York Times’ The Upshot.

There is also some terrific writing in the paragraph, so we spent some time talking about Carroll’s style and sentence structure.

The students then picked five items from the list that they wanted to develop into paragraphs like Carroll’s.

  • Select five items from your listicle to develop into developed paragraphs.
  • Each paragraph should have supportive information from a legitimate source.
  • Your listicle needs to explain the WHY for each entry.

I then modeled to students how they can write a paragraph strong on detail and supported by facts. The example I used is a paragraph on why Sandpoint is the coolest city in Idaho using support from travel writers that have written about Sandpoint.

Developing your listicle
A screenshot from a presentation I gave to my students.


STEP 4: Don’t Forget The Lead

Too often my newspaper students jump into a list without including an overview or lead to explain what the listicle is about or why it’s important to the reader. So after the intro students developed the paragraphs for their list, they then worked on an introduction, or lead. I required the introduction be three to four paragraphs.


STEP 5: The Editing Process

As part of the editing process, we placed the tables in my room together and discussed their listicles as a class. I asked students at random about the subject of their listicles and what each of the entries the five entries were. We then discussed what they liked about writing the listicles and what they found the most difficult. It was a great opportunity to discuss the writing process together.

Student example
A screenshot of a student’s rough draft.


STEP 6: Laying It All Out

After the editing process, the students used InDesign to lay out their listicles. The students used a tutorial I have about Designing with Type to create a headline. They also learned about working with columns and formatting paragraphs.



I was pleased with how this short unit worked out. Most of the students had developed paragraphs and managed to establish some narrative that turned emphasized the “icle” in listicle.