No offense to anybody, but I’ve recently noticed that there’s a type of title which invariably puts me off reading; it’s actually any title including or starting with a number (of how-to tips). In case you still don’t know, I’m talking about those ten-ways-to-be-happy or the-top-ten-ways-to-teach-grammar posts. Surely, such articles are written with good intentions – to help the less experienced folks out there or, and I don’t have a problem with that, the authors simply feel the need to share some valuable information. I might have written a post like that too. So what is it that bugs me then?
Any number used in a title the way I mention above immediately indicates to me that the stuff will be pretty superficial in the sense that the authors will provide a list of tips with little elaboration on each entry. Any number bigger than 10 makes me suspect that the article will be a drag because the list is just too long (unless it’s a terribly interesting topic or something written in a tongue-in-the-cheek way). So I’ll be biased right from the start because it’s unlikely that I, the reader, will absorb, let alone put to practice, all the information from a long list of suggestions (unless their aim is to merely entertain me). I could obviously bookmark these articles and refer to them later if need be – except that I never do.
Don’t get me wrong; I think that providing the reader with a well-arranged list of tips is very considerate of the author. Unfortunately, articles like that are unbearably predictable – it’s often enough to skim through the headings. Plus the element of surprise and creativity which I like so much about reading is missing in such a type of writing (I’m at number 5 so there are 5 more tips left – BORING!).
Also, I’ve noticed that people like to round numbers off. I might be wrong (apart from a quick corpus search, I have no evidence to back up my claim) but I suspect that it’s because a post called Nine ways to teach vocabulary may be a little less clickbait-y than the one called Ten ways to teach vocabulary. So, inevitably, in the former case, the writer will have to add one more bullet point by either repeating themselves (very cautiously, so that the reader doesn’t notice) or by making things up (secretly hoping that the reader won’t check). Needless to say, the quality of such a piece will suffer and in the end, the reader will feel deceived.
But those were just minor issues. What I really can’t stand is the feeling that articles with titles including a number of how-to tips are inherently patronizing. The top ten ways to XY. Ten tips on how to XY. The ten common XY to avoid. Who says it’s the top ten? For whom is it the top ten? By telling me that the author (or some imaginary bunch of people) has already voted for the top ten, they automatically deny me, the reader, the opportunity to judge for myself. The information is presented as a set of facts rather than food for thought. Also, I feel that titles like this are more suitable for articles in the tabloid press, for example, which nobody takes too seriously anyway, so sorry, but such a piece of writing then looks as if running counter to what it intends to be – informative and reliable.