Ranked List Topic, List Composition
Part 8 of Playbook: The Basics of Writing for Bleacher Report. Click here for more information and to download all of Playbook for free.
After Ranking Logic, the next most important elements of a Ranked List are the List Topic and List Composition. The former refers to how good the list could be in theory, while the latter is a measure of how well the idea is executed in practice.
For List Topic, evaluators ask two distinct questions:
- Is the topic substantively original?
- Is the topic viscerally compelling?
In other words, does the list confront readers with something they haven’t seen before and something they’ll actually want to read?
In concrete terms, “substantively original” means something more than just another conventional Top 10—a list that doesn’t simply rank the “best” in a generic or undifferentiated category. As an example, “The 10 Best Quarterbacks of All Time” would fall in the “generic” category. “The 10 Best Pocket Passers of All Time” or “The 10 Most Versatile Quarterbacks of All Time” would be specific enough to qualify as substantively original.
The “viscerally compelling” criterion is a bit trickier, as it requires evaluators to ask whether a typical reader would want to know the No. 1 item on the list. Although this is one of the more subjective aspects of a mostly objective evaluation system, we’ve found that “You know it when you feel it” actually makes for a fairly consistent definition, especially when it’s applied by folks who get paid to read sports content all day.
In any case, you can generally get an accurate sense of how compelling a list will be by imagining yourself to be a reader coming to it for the first time. But if you’re ever in doubt about any particular topic, you shouldn’t hesitate to seek a second opinion.
Aside to anyone who regularly takes on list-type assignments from his or her supervising editor: If you’re a critical reader, you’re probably wondering how we judge writers on the basis of List Topic when so many writers have their topics assigned to them. The short answer: We expect the assignment process to be collaborative rather than dictatorial, and we strongly encourage writers to suggest alternatives when they aren’t satisfied with a given assignment.
That policy obviously applies to a wide range of scenarios, but you can rest assured that “I don’t think this topic is original or compelling” will always be a valid way to start a conversation with your editor.
When it comes to List Topic, we focus on what might be called “reader-friendly” criteria. Every question we ask is tied to the larger issue of whether a list is put together in a way that’s likely to engage readers. If you’re failing to do that much, any other successes are bound to go for naught.
To start, we always require lists to be presented in “segmented” formats, either as a slideshow or a rich-media standard article with a full-width image or video for each list item. The idea is that the format of the list should sync with the flow and meaning of its content—and since a list is nothing if not the sum of its ranked items, it’s important to make each item stand out by setting it apart from the others.
We also require that a list’s candidates be presented in ascending order of rank—e.g. from No. 10 to No. 1. We want to build suspense as readers click their way through to the top spot. That’s a lot better than leading with the climax, then asking readers to slog through a series of increasingly uninteresting afterthoughts.
And speaking of afterthoughts, we expect to see a brief summary of three to five Honorable Mention candidates before the list actually gets to the ranked candidates. This should generally be the second slide in a slideshow, after the introduction and before the slide showing the bottom item on the actual ranked list.
The reasoning here is twofold: First, listing Honorable Mention candidates shows readers that you’ve put real thought into picking candidates for the list; and second, your Honorable Mention descriptions will give you an opportunity to flesh out your ranking criteria. In what sense did So-and-So almost qualify for a spot on the list, and in what sense did they fall short? The answers will make your underlying logic much clearer for readers. And readers who are clear on the underlying logic are more likely to give a list the close attention it deserves.
If readers are going to be giving your list close attention, it follows that you’ll want to make the descriptions of the list items themselves easy to digest. Whether it’s slide titles, subheadlines or statistical capsules, every segmented item should be formatted with the same elements in the same order—the better to make both comparisons and distinctions between individual candidates.
But remember that “comparisons and distinctions” aren’t just the stuff of clever formatting. It’s important to consistently make explicit and meaningful comparisons between the ranked items on your list. You should use your original ranking criteria to explain why some candidates ranked higher or lower than others.
Evaluators expect to see such comparisons for each of the top three items on your list and at least half of them overall. If you meet that criterion, you’ll be well on your way toward convincing readers that your order is the right one. And that should have been your goal when you sat down to compose the list in the first place.
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Playbook: The Basics of Writing for Bleacher Report Writers is an 18-part series outlining the metrics and criteria of B/R’s objective Writer Evaluation system. The system complements the subjective assessments made by members of our Editorial Team, which means that a solid evaluation is a necessary but not sufficient condition of success with B/R. You can find more information and download the full Playbook for free at this link.
Playbook Table of Contents:
Three story types
News Report Story Angle
News Report Narrative Structure, Information Aggregation
Argumentative Articles: Thesis, Rhetorical Structure, Factual Evidence
Ranked Lists: Ranking Logic
Ranked Lists: Topic, List Composition
Attribution and Hyperlinks
Sentence and Paragraph Structure
B/R Style and Formatting
Common Mistakes: General
Common Mistakes: Three Article Types