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As Easy As ABC: Writing List Articles

by Theresa O'Shea

Early on in my writing career, I came across an article in a gardening magazine entitled "20 Things you Never Knew about Mistletoe." Inspired, I researched and sold two similar features: one on holly and ivy, the other on Easter eggs. Since then, among the hundreds of articles I have had published worldwide, around one in five has been in a non-straight text format. These include 20 Things, Top Tens and A-Z's.

The advantages of choosing such formats are many:

  • Editors love them and will often use the title on the front page to hook readers.

  • Bite-sized chunks of information are in - look at the success of books such as Why don't Penguins' Feet Freeze?.

  • They are perfect for recycling previously published articles.

  • They can be researched and written in short bursts.

  • They force you to produce tight, crisp text.

  • Their structure is straightforward.

Twenty Things you Never Knew about ...

The editor of a general interest magazine will have lost count of the seasonal articles she has received on the history of the Christmas Tree / Halloween / Valentine's Day, etc. Dig up a few unusual facts, look for modern snippets as well as historical ones, and suggest a 20 Things feature, and you're much more likely to grab her interest. The same approach works for specialist publications. For a cat magazine, for example, you could suggest 20 things about a particular breed; for a healthy living magazine, 20 things about the latest wonder food.

The number 20 is not written in stone: 21 and 15 both work well, too. At first glance, the number 28 might not seem very inspiring, but I recently sold a timely piece called 28 Things you Never Knew about Andalucia to an expat publication. In Spain, February 28 is Andalucia Day, so the number worked perfectly. How about 17 Things for Saint Patrick's Day, 14 things for Valentine's Day, or 24 things for ...? Well, you figure something out.

Catchy titles won't necessarily sell your pitch, but they certainly help. Writing about quirky aspects of a Spanish Christmas, I used Navidad instead of Christmas to give the alliterating 20 Things you Never Knew about Navidad. And wouldn't you at least be curious about an article entitled 20 Things you Never Knew about Nipples? Can't find an alliteration? Then change the number: 17 Things you Never Knew about Siamese Cats, 14 Ways to Feng Shui Your Office, and so on.

Top Tens

Travel Top Tens are hot right now. They are useful, digestible and, as the Americans say, actionable. Open any travel or property magazine and you're sure to see Top Tens -- or Fives or Sevens -- of everything from golf properties and spas to yoga retreats and fun parks. Contact details and costs, if relevant, are usually given at the end of each entry.

Think of a sector -- vegetarians, disabled people, solo women travellers, people travelling with pets -- and aim the roundup at them. Ten Vegetarian Tapa Treats, Ten Pet-friendly Hotels, Top Ten Disabled Destinations -- once you start brainstorming, it's hard to stop.

Get more mileage out of your original idea and go from global to local. I wrote a piece about naturist beaches and resorts called "Ten Places to Get Your Kit Off" for a European in-flight magazine, focusing on the airline's destinations. Narrowing the scope, I then re-wrote it for one of the Spain magazines, and finally narrowed it further still for a publication on the Costa del Sol.

Find a reason for writing about a particular destination -- to coincide with a festival, for example -- and turn out a Top Ten Things to do / places to visit there. And don't forget the downsides, either. Try a best of / worst of approach: Barcelona: What not to miss, What to avoid, The Highs and Lows of the Munich Beer Festival, and so on.


The mechanics of the A-Z are slightly more complicated. If you write one entry per letter for a 1500-word article, this means an average of 57 words per entry. Sometimes, though, you will need more than one headword for certain letters, making the average length of each one considerably shorter. This can be tough, but provides great practice in making every word count.

A-Z's are attractive to the editor because they are quirky and eye-catching. For the writer, they are especially useful for revamping and updating old articles. I have re-written features on subjects such as aphrodisiacs, hangovers, learning to drive, and natural beauty into A-Z's that were easy to sell and quick to turn around. The format also works well for beginners' guides that explain the jargon related to a particular hobby or activity: An A-Z Guide to Digital photography / for Naturist Newbies / of Bullfighting.

If you're targeting country-specific magazines, the A-Z is an ideal vehicle for language-related topics. In a feature on shops in Spain, I wrote the headwords in Spanish, followed by a brief translation, and then a commentary. The success I have had with this kind of article actually led to me co-writing an entire book about Spain in an A-Z format. Peter Mayle has done a similar thing in his Provence A-Z.


  • Top tens, A-Zs, and 20 Things are not a soft option. Triple-check all facts and write tight.

  • While a conclusion is not necessary, an introductory paragraph may be useful to draw in the reader and set the context.

  • Strike a balance between more well known and lesser-known snippets when writing 20 Things and A-Z articles.

  • Word can play havoc with numbered points in an article. Write the entries first, decide the order, and then number them.

  • With A-Z's, it's OK to omit one or two tough letters, like Q or X. You will need a Z, though, so browse the dictionary and think creatively.

Related Articles:

Five Steps to Writing Great Quizzes, by Kelly James-Enger

Six Tips on Writing and Selling List Articles, by Kathryn Lay

What's Your Writing IQ? Writing Fillers and Quizzes, by Marie E. Cecchini
Copyright © 2008 Theresa O'Shea
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Theresa O'Shea is co-author (with Valerie Collins) of an A-Z book, called In the Garlic: Your Informative, Fun Guide to Spain (Santana Books). Her website is at

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