February 8, 2016

Two Thoughts on Lists

Two thoughts on lists

1. Everyone is talking about the attention span of millennials.

Millennials are talking about the attention span of millennials. Other millennials are tired of hearing those millennials talk about their attention spans.

The listicle is the go-to example of our dwindling focus. Long-form essays and articles have solidified a place in our psyche as more significant than a list, of a higher stature. Meanwhile, the most clicked on content are articles with headlines like “The 10 Things in Your Diet That Might Be Killing You” or “17 Pictures That Will Make You Regret Your Life Decisions.”

But are all listicles the content equivalent of fast food? We don’t think so. Rachel Edidin argues, in her own listicle, that both long-form and listicles have their place on the internet:

“Lists are the survey courses to long-form’s advanced study. A long-form article will take you through one topic in considerable depth; a list, compiled thoughtfully, will skim the surface of a broader body of content, giving you a series of contact points from which to explore further in your own time.”

In fact, we’d argue that as a result of the internet, people are reading more now than they ever have. The internet has made everything so accessible, so easy to get to, that the problem isn’t that we don’t read anymore, it’s that there are too many options to figure out what it is we should read. Between all the ads, embedded links, and related articles, we may not even finish reading one (we probably won’t) before we’re onto the next. Which is fine. There is a stigma against not finishing books, articles, etc, that when you abandon a piece of writing, you are giving up. But the truth is, most content on the internet is not worth reading. A list structure allows the reader to quickly assess if it is worth their time to read further.

Despite our apparent inability, or lack of urgency, to finish reading an article, or listicle, we’re still reading more now than we ever were. According to this Gallup survey, nearly half of Americans surveyed in 2005 were actively reading a book. That is a 24% increase since 1957, the era of New Yorker Writers, Truman Capote, JD Salinger, Graham Greene. We read more now than when Kurt Vonnegut was publishing. They have a few other statistics in the survey that you can look into, but basically: yes, we read more than we ever have. Writing is more accessible than ever before, especially since it is more portable than ever.

So, why are we reading so many lists? Because, for the type of writing we don’t want to savor, lists are the optimal structure. They are quick. They are a glance. They are an opportunity to dive in, or back out.

So, we read lists. Lists are good. We don’t have short attention spans—we have voracious appetites. We read lists to be more productive with our reading. We write lists to convey information in a way that is resourceful, but won’t take a chunk out of someone’s day.

2. We’ve been thinking about what other things we can use lists for, since they’re everybody’s jam right now.

All lists should convey information, but we want to try writing lists that elicit information.

After reading this BrainPickings article about Ray Bradbury’s writing process, we’ve come to the conclusion that making lists is a genius way to seduce an idea, to coax it out of your brain and turn it into something tangible, sculpt-able, something we can work with. Bradbury uses lists as a means of generating ideas, of brainstorming and afterwards, he has something he can analyze, put together, figure out in a jigsaw puzzle sort of way: “I was beginning to see a pattern in the list, in these words that I had simply flung forth on paper, trusting my subconscious to give bread, as it were, to the birds.”

After having read this, and wanting to write a post about lists, we found ourselves facing a blank piece of paper. So, in the footsteps of Bradbury, we made a list.

The list. The items. The things. The thoughts. The contents. The bullets. The connectedness. The to-dos. The have-dones. The will-but-don’t-know-yets. The possibilities. The failures. The ideas. The fledgelings. The twinkles. The collaborations. The scratch-outs. The cross-offs. The little things in the margins. The last check-offs. Chekhov? The repopulation. The next list. The list inside of that list. The taking it all in. The not forgetting anything. The control. The surmount-ability. The mountain of ideas, the list. The small pick hacking away at it all. The sculpting. The shaping. The processing. The finished product.

And you know what happened when we got to the end of it? We flipped over the page and started writing paragraphs. Some of these paragraphs you are reading now in this blog post.

A list doesn’t have to be a to-do. It doesn’t have to be a final product. It can be a brainstorming process. For example, at Monomyth, when we are developing naming concepts for brands, we often keep a list of word associations to get to an idea, one we probably wouldn’t have been able to discover without the process of listing.

A list is a structure we have worked with since we were children, and because of our familiarity with it, we can use it to pull ideas out of our subconscious. The structure means we don’t have to think about how we’re writing something. We just write it. And then we have an idea, and that idea becomes a blog post, a brand, a short film, or, in Bradbury’s case, Fahrenheit 451.

If you want to share an example of a creative list you’ve developed, tweet it to us @monomythstudio. We’d love to know what has worked for you!

P.S.  We found a couple other cool list related things:

The List App is a social media platform created by BJ Novak (from The Office). It is a place where you can subscribe to and read other people’s creative lists, while also writing and sharing your own lists. If you want to make lists, but don’t know where to begin, they offer suggestions like, “Times in My Life I Was Wrong,” “Notes to My Future Self,” or “Best Advice I’ve Ever Received.”

The Done List is a productivity method that focuses on positive reinforcement, rewarding your accomplishments. The idea is that, rather than checking things off a to-do, at the end of the day you add your completed things to a “done list.” You will be more motivated to do your work if you give yourself the time to reflect on your achievements throughout the week.