A guest post by Sara Bir
Last year, I assigned, edited, and posted 230 listicles for my former job as food editor for the pop culture website Paste Magazine.
A listsicle, if you’re wondering, comprises a short list of 100-200 words that tells a larger story. You’ve read many of them online because they’re fast reads and often, you can’t help yourself.
I once resented listsicles for their seemingly dashed-off nature. I thought they were just articles with numbers in them. But I had to make peace with listsicles, because readers love them. Here are some of Paste Food’s most viewed posts in 2015:
- Saddest Cookbooks Ever
- The 10 Best Food Jokes of Jim Gaffigan
- The Top 10 Uniquely Canadian Snack Foods
- 10 Foods You Didn’t Know You Can Make in a Muffin Tin.
If you’d like to pitch and write a listsicle, these were the qualities I looked for when assigning one at Paste:
1. Use a listsicle to break in. Listicles are a good way to break into a new publication, since they are perceived as lower-risk than assigning a newbie a 3,000-word story. One way to create a potential list is by gleaning nifty factoids as you’re researching a larger reported story for a different publication. With a clever slant, you can squeeze another story out of the work you’ve already done. (I did this once with the history of broad-breasted white turkeys, of all things—the leftovers became a list of commonly held myths about turkey).
2. Create a list that’s “sticky.” Even lists that seem frivolous can make readers think about something differently. This is a quality I call “sticky,” as there’s an element that clings to your mind. This list, How to Not Drive Your Farmer Crazy at the Farmers’ Market, worked because the writer is a former farmer. Aside from providing etiquette tips for shoppers on market day, she gave us a glimpse of the challenges many of us had no idea farmers faced.
3. Make it useful. A list isn’t just a bunch of links to recipes or how-tos on other websites. The list’s text should be the star of the show. Instead of rattling off a bunch of half-baked hacks for common cooking challenges, a list should get readers excited to explore your world or be in the kitchen.
4. Make it entertaining. Paste is a pop culture website, so some of our lists exist mainly to entertain. I liked The 10 Best Food Sketches of Portlandia, because Portlandia does such a fine job of poking fun at the preciousness of our current food culture. Putting all of those moments into one list demonstrates how the show has become a tastemaker in the comedy and culinary spheres—so it’s secretly sticky, too.
5. Timely is good too. Though it was a sleeper, I loved 5 Ways to Eat Snow because it offers little bit of science and food history. It was timely because the writer pitched it when snowstorms blanketed much of the eastern U.S. It was useful, at last to anyone with cabin fever seeking culinary applications for snow. But most of all, it’s fun because it has a big “neat-o” factor.
6. Write an attention-grabbing headline. Think about what’s clickable. The words best, worst, you, your, and my perform well in headlines. For instance, “10 Popular French Pastries You’ve Never Heard Of” is better than “10 Obscure French Pastries.”
6. When pitching, mention at least three things you’d include. You don’t need to mention everything on the list, but don’t pitch a listicle if you aren’t confident you can come up with eight or so items.
7. Quickly explain why you’re the right person. My preference was to work with writers who are clearly excited about their pitches, because I wanted them to turn in work that’s amusing to read yet rich with information. It helps if you an expert on the topic, or you have access to other experts.
8. Show that you can crush it. Some writers are naturally better at writing feature stories. There’s nothing wrong with that, but when a writer pitched me a listsicle, I wanted to be sure a listsicle is what I’d get. Include links to your related published clips, and to any lists you’ve written.
I’ve stepped down at Paste to pursue cookbook projects, but you can pitch Dakota Kim, Paste Food’s new editor, dakota AT pastemagazine DOT com. She’ll be taking pitches for feature stories, galleries, and, yes, especially lists.
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The founding food editor of Paste Magazine and graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, Sara Bir is the author of The Pocket Pawpaw Cookbook. Now a freelancer, she continues to contribute to Paste Food. Her work has appeared in Best Food Writing 2014, and she is a regular contributor to Full Grown People, where her essay “The Hard Alphabet” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
(Image courtesy of iosphere at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.)