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Toward this end, this topic is a compendium of some of the suggestions the Top 10 List board has come up with over time. They span four topics: Choosing Your Topic, Selecting The Items, Writing the List, and After the List is Submitted.
Choosing a Topic
1. Brainstorm naturally. Don't sit down one day and say, "Ok, I want to write a Top 10 list. What should I write it about?" The best ideas are ones that come to you naturally, not ones that are forced out of your poor brain. If it's an interesting idea, it will likely spring forth from an unrelated activity, like actually playing a game or reading other lists. If you try to force it, you end up with crummy lists like the "Top 10 Video Game Horses" list I had wrote a couple years back, then had removed several months ago.
One of the activities that most often leads to new list ideas as well is actually writing a list. If you've already got an idea in mind that you're working on, be ready to write down new ideas as well. A lot of them won't go anywhere, but when you're in the writing mindset, you're naturally well-equipped to think of new ideas as well.
2. Choose a suitably narrow topic. There are two extremes when it comes to brainstorming a topic: there are lists for which hundreds of games would technically qualify for consideration, like "Top 10 RPGs", and there are lists for which you'd struggle to even think of ten games, like "Top 10 Interspecies Romantic Subplots." The best list topics are the ones that fall somewhere in the middle. You want a decent body of selections to choose from, and you want to have to at least defend your ideas a bit. At the same time, if the body to choose from is too large, your list becomes absolutely nothing but opinion.
For example, many of the early lists were topics like, "Top 10 SNES Games". Topics like that tend to be too broad, and as a result, reflect only the author's opinion. On the other hand, lists like one I recently proposed, "Top 10 Characters Named Cid", tend to be so narrow that you're basically choosing every possible item for the list. "Top 10" implies the best 10 out of a larger group; if there's not a larger group, it's probably not a great topic.
3. The search bar is your friend. There's nothing wrong with doing a topic that's been done before. However, searching previously done lists can provide valuable information. If the topic's been done a dozen times, maybe you'll want to put your own spin on it. Or perhaps you want to do something special to differentiate your list from a recent one. Reading a similar lists might also make you aware of things that you don't like about other lists in that general theme, so that you can then ensure you do something differently.
For example, two recent lists have focused on the crimes committed by game protagonists Mario and the playable Pokemon character. I thought a general RPG protagonists' crime list would be fun, but one thing that I didn't like about the other lists weren't specific about what 'crime' meant. To me, the crimes that should be listed were ones that humorously weren't discouraged within the game world, and thus, that became one of my formal criteria. And speaking of which...
4. Formalize your criteria. This is, in my opinion, the most important aspect of choosing a list topic. A good list has very formal criteria for inclusion and ranking. The benefit of formal criteria is that it makes your list less opinion-based: it gives you something standard and concrete against which you can weight the games' merits. If someone comes along and disagrees with your list, the disagreement takes place in the context of your criteria: do they disagree in how you applied your criteria, or in your criteria themselves?
Recent discussion on the board has mentioned formal criteria a lot. For example, one poster is proposing a "Top 10 Non-Main Characters" list; but how do we define main character? Is it the primary playable character, or all playable characters? In Monistic_Turtle's Licensed Song/Musician list, his formal criteria were that the music had to have come from an outside artist not working directly on the soundtrack. However, his criteria did not define whether public-domain music counted, nor did it explicitly state that music-based games weren't considered. The list was still excellent, but a lot of criticism centered around a lack of stated formal criteria.
So, state your criteria. For some of my lists, some examples of formal criteria include: the game was released at least a year after the movie (Top 10 Delayed-Release Movie-Based Games); companies that had an exclusive partnership with Nintendo, evaluated solely on the games developed during that exclusive partnership (Top 10 Nintendo-Owned Or -Affiliated Game Developers); and priority is given to artists that have lent their voices to a variety of roles, rather than one very good role (Top 10 Voiceover Artists In Gaming). The latter is an especially good example. Many people blasted that list because it didn't include David Hayter, but that was addressed in the formal criteria: Hayter did one very good role, but didn't have variety, and thus wasn't considered highly for that list.
5. Ask yourself: Is this interesting? Why? A problem that can come up in writing lists is that people get bogged down in the nitty gritty of just sufficiently describing everything to get the list posted. That's why many lists are boring: the writers themselves forget to make them interesting. If you don't enjoy writing the list, chances are no one is going to enjoy reading the list.
So when you come up with your topic, ask yourself the question: would I want to read a list on this topic? If you wouldn't, chances are no one else would either. But more importantly, once you decide an idea is interesting, ask yourself: why? Why would this idea make an interesting read? The reason to answer this question is because you want to write specifically to this motivation: if it's interesting because it highlights funny moments in games, then make the list funny. If it's interesting because it highlights a side of gaming people might not know, then make sure to include lots of trivia. If it's interesting because of an internal contrast between games, then accentuate that contrast. The important thing is to identify why a list topic would be interesting, and then write to explicitly exploit that reason.
6. Be independent in your topic selection. Reading through lots of Top 10 lists (and I've read them all, for my Top 10 GameFAQS Top Ten Lists list), you'll quickly notice that many of them (especially the ones from 2007 to 2009) tend to follow a specific formula. There's a vaguely interesting and ill-defined idea. There's 4 or 5 popular games that the writer manages to squeeze into the list topic. There's 2 or 3 games that legitimately fit, and then there's 2 or 3 games that the author gets really excited about.
The reason for this is that oftentimes, someone will write a list solely to praise one or two games. Sometimes authors will even come up with a topic solely so that it'll put their favorite game at #1. That's very bad. In writing a list, you're not writing about individual games; you're writing about a topic as a whole, using games to explore it. If you're more interested in the game than the list topic, you probably shouldn't be writing that list.
Now, that's not to say lists can't be inspired by individual games. My Literature-Based Games list was entirely inspired by Dante's Inferno. But the key is that the list is not solely motivated by that game; that game introduces the topic, but the list doesn't exist solely toward talking about that game. It just introduces an interesting question. It's a question only you can answer: are you writing the list for the topic, or just for a particular game or two?
7. Go Outside the Box. Most of the advice I've given thusfar has assumed your list is based on a game: but the great thing is that nowadays, SBAllen accepts lists that aren't necessarily rooted in a single game. Some of my lists include Events Where Gaming Impacted The Real World, Game Companies/Franchises/Designers, and Voiceover Artists. Other recent lists include Console Features, Crimes Committed By Mario, and Best Things Bungie Did To Halo.
So if you have an idea that isn't necessarily rooted in one-game-per-item, go for it! Those are oftentimes the best lists of all. There are other things you can do to break the normal list framework as well. You can have your list motivated by actual numbers, like polls, mentions, or sales figures. Instead of ranking games ten to one, you can use those ten items to represent years or genres. You've got a lot of leeway to choose your topic nowadays, so take advantage of it.
8. Get Feedback. We're here to help, and the board sticky clearly prohibits stealing ideas. So if you think you've got an idea, post it here. We'd be glad to help point out its flaws, its strengths, and potential traps you might fall into in writing. We'll help make sure you've got some formal criteria, and that you know what you'll need to explain. So by all means, no matter how preliminary your idea is, post it here.
Choosing the Items
9. Don't avoid popular games just because they're popular. Frankly, popular games are popular for a reason: they probably do fit a lot of list topics, since most lists talk about things games have done particularly well. It might seem predictable to put Ocarina of Time or Final Fantasy VII in certain lists, but that doesn't automatically make it a bad thing. If a popular game really works with your list's topic, then don't be afraid to use it. Sure, Chrono Trigger makes an appearance on nearly every list of Top RPGs ever, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't use it if you're writing something similar. (Now, if you really don't think a popular game fits, then don't include it -- all I mean is that if popularity and predictability is your only reason not to include a game, you should probably include it anyway.)
10. Don't default to popular games if you run out of ideas. At the same time, however, don't resort to popular games just because you can't think of anything better. If you've brainstormed a list of seven games, don't start thinking about Ocarina of Time or Final Fantasy VII and try to talk yourself into thinking they fit. Sure, those games have great music, but if you really don't believe they have among the best music ever, don't include them in a music list just because they're popular and easy to write about. If you run out of ideas, do some research. Check Google for similar topics. Ask around on some social boards or on the Top 10 list board. But don't fill up your list with a popular game and then try to sell us that Super Mario Bros. 3 had some epic plot twist or something.
11. Be prepared to do some research. No one has a sufficiently comprehensive knowledge of gaming, or likely even any corner of gaming, to write the perfect list all their own. For example, if I asked you to name the Top 10 Plot Twists in gaming, you could probably think of ten: but that doesn't mean you should automatically make a list of those ten. There are a lot of games you've never played, and it'd be a shame to leave them out of your list just because they never fell on your radar.
The key is that a Top 10 list doesn't necessarily have to be all games you've played. In my Literature-Based Games list, I've played a grand total of one of those games, and it took the 10th spot. If you have a good idea, though, you can do your research and find out what else would fit into your topic. You can find games that you've never played, and research enough about them to include them. There's nothing at all wrong with that; it'd be more wrong to assume you know everything about your topic off the top of your head.
12. Take your time. Don't sit down one day and decide you're going to ram out your ten choices right then. I've got a document on my computer of list ideas, each with four or five games listed below them. If need be, I can go do some hardcore research and fill out my selections, but it's more effective to just let the idea simmer for a while. As I go about my normal day, reading sites and posting on GameFAQs, oftentimes an idea will come up for a game that fits into a list I'm already working on. That's a very organic way for a list to form: the less forced and the more natural, the better.
13. Variety is the spice of life. I'll cut to the chase on this one: unless your list is RPG-specific, it shouldn't be all RPGs. Unless it's generation-specific, it shouldn't be all recent games. Unless it's console-specific, it shouldn't be all Xbox games. You can't help that through your life, you've probably predominantly played a certain kind of game on a certain selection of consoles, but that doesn't mean your list should directly reflect that history or those biases. That's not to say that certain list topics aren't prone to certain genres of games: if you write a list of the Top 10 betrayals, chances are you're going to have a lot of RPGs. And maybe that's fine, but just make sure you actually pay attention to variety. If you can justify having a somewhat homogenous list, then go for it: but the important thing is to justify it, preferably in the list's own intro or conclusion.
14. Get Feedback. Same as the first section: feel free to post your selections to the board before you write your list. We'll be glad to let you know if it looks too homogenous, or tell you what games you'll have to be careful to fully explain. If there's a conspicuous absence of certain popular games, we'll mention it, and even if you decide not to include them anyway, it'll at least give you a moment to think of why those games aren't making your list. And most importantly, as mentioned in #11, there are likely lots of games that could fit your list that you've never played. Asking others is a great way to hear what some of them might be.
Writing the List
15. Ideal length is 250 to 300 words. It's not that this is meant to limit your ideas or anything, it's just a practical consideration. People tend to avoid giant walls of text, and stop reading after a couple paragraphs per game. If you want them to read everything you have to say, try to keep it in this word range to keep your audience. That said, if you consciously choose to exceed this (as I often, often do), that's fine: just understand the give-and-take that comes with it. Regardless, it's better to write too much than too few.
16. Use proper grammar and spelling. Top 10 lists that are featured go on the front page of a site that gets millions of visitors a day. We don't know how many hits a featured list gets necessarily, but suffice to say that it's a lot. So, treat the medium with a little respect. Copy your text over to Word to spell-check it before submitting. Use proper grammar, and at least a slightly formal writing style: avoid internet slang and try to write in a normal style, without over-using ellipses or emoticons. This will not only help your list get posted in the first place, but it'll help it have a more professional air to it.
16. DDJ recommends topic first, then items, then intro, then conclusion. This is more of a personal suggestion, and other writers might disagree, but there's a certain order I recommend for writing the actual text of a list. First, start with your topic, formalize the criteria, and select the games. Then, write the descriptions for each of the 10 games (preferably in order, so you can refer backwards more easily). Then write the introduction and the conclusion. The reason for this is that ideally, your introduction sets the frame for your list and your conclusion summarizes it; it's hard to know what you're framing when you haven't written the items yet. That said, it can also be easier to write the individual items in the context of some frame, so the other way has its benefits, too. Experiment on your own and see what works best for you.
17. No one likes a wall of text. Remember, you can now use line breaks, so make use of them to break up your paragraphs into readable, topical chunks. Italics and bold text are kosher, too, so use those for emphasis instead of asterisks or capitalized words. That's about all I can say about that.
18. Have a formula. This helps both you and the reader. Ten 300-word write-ups can be intimidating, both to write and to read. It's open, it's ambiguous, and it provides little help to what you should be writing. So do yourself a favor and break it up a bit. On every write-up you could, for example, spend a paragraph describing the game, a paragraph describing the aspect that fits your list, and a paragraph describing why it ranks where it does. With formatting, you can even make this even more formal: in my Best-Of-Their-Genre series of lists, each write-up is explicitly broken into three sections: describing a genre, describing the game I chose, and describing other good games in that genre. This helps you write the list by breaking it into manageable chunks, and helps readers read the list for the same reason.
19. Be consistent. Whether you have a formula or not, try to stick to writing approximately the same amount about each item on your list. Nothing screams, "This list was written just for this game!" louder than nine 100-word write-ups followed by a 1000-word essay on your top choice. Readers will appreciate it, too, and it helps the writing process to write within restrictions.
20. Know your tone. If you're writing a comedic list, don't give it an analytical spin. If you're writing a very serious, in-depth analysis, then provide the information you need to provide. Understanding the type of list you're writing is very important; all lists have a place, but if you're trying to describe the Top 10 Funniest Video Game characters, you might want to go with a funny list rather than analyzing the humor of those characters.
21. Avoid assumptions. The majority of people reading your list probably haven't played every game on it, so don't assume they have. Give a little bit of backdrop on the particular item so that even if the person hasn't played the game, they have some idea why it's being included. Then, when describing why it fits your list, be specific. Don't just say, "We all know Solid Snake is one of the deepest characters in gaming": describe it a bit. Assume it's your mom reading your list, who probably knows nothing about video games. Sure, she might not be interested, but is your list at least informative enough for her to understand what you're describing?
22. Deal with spoilers intelligently. If your list topic doesn't need to spoil the games it lists, don't. You can allude to big plot events or character developments without spoiling them if they aren't the focal point of your list. Try lines like, "Cloud's character development truly accelerates later in the game, making him one of gaming's more interesting characters." That line doesn't actually spoil anything from the game, while still allowing you to justify including the item.
If your list is inherently ridden with spoilers -- for example, Top 10 Final Bosses -- then by all means, mark the list as a whole for spoilers. In those cases, I'd also recommend not putting any spoilers in the game's title line: that way, someone could scroll through the list and see, for example, Final Fantasy VI and think, "Oh, I'm playing that right now, I don't want to see what the final boss is" without preventing them from reading the rest of the list.
But sometimes your list might fall somewhere in between these extremes. For example, think of a list about Fathers and Sons, like Sanctuary Remix's. Certain father-son pairs in that list, like Tidus and Jecht, are known from the very beginning of the game. Others are enormous spoilers for their respective franchises. For these cases, I recommend doing what owned2dabone did in his list of Electricity users: state in your introduction that you'll mark sections that contain spoilers with an asterisk, and follow the previous paragraph's advice about not putting the spoiler information directly in the section title. That way, someone can scroll down, see the asterisk that indicates a spoiler, see the game title, and decide whether to read the section or move on.
23. Use boxshots and screenshots intelligently. For a lot of lists, it works just fine to outright have the game's boxshot for each item, but there are a lot of lists that need something different. For example, if you're listing characters, why not have pictures of the characters rather than just the boxshots of the games they hail from? If you're listing things that aren't specific to individual games, why have images at all?
Remember, you're only allowed to use image thumbnails for the images in a list. To get the thumbnail, right-click on the image on the screenshot page, and either click Copy Image Location (in Firefox), click Properties and copy the URL (Internet Explorer), or Copy Image URL (Chrome). Then, paste this URL into the image box of the list item.
24. Take your time. This was mentioned before, but applies here as well. There's no need to hit Submit on your list the moment you're done writing it: odds are, it won't be posted for a few days anyway. So let it sit for a day or two. Come back and read it later and make sure it still makes sense. You'll be glad you did: you'll catch some mistakes and realize what you didn't explain clearly in the first place.
25. Get Feedback. And once again, you can get feedback on this stage of the process, too. We'd love to read your write-ups and let you know if you're explaining things thoroughly enough or skimping on some details. There are plenty of grammar people around as well that can help with grammatical issues or problems of tone and phrasing. Remember, Top 10 lists cannot be edited once they're posted, so better safe than sorry: get some feedback before you submit your list.
After the List is Submitted
26. Wait. Typically, one Featured Top 10 list is posted each week day. You can check the status of your submitted Top 10 list here: http://www.gamefaqs.com/contribute/contrib_status.php
27. If the list is rejected, improve it. If you see that your list was rejected at the above URL, it will get sent back to your Unposted Lists box for easy editing (though note that this won't happen if you manually pull it -- you'll have to copy/paste the list back into the boxes, which is a pain). Oftentimes, SBAllen will include a note about why the list wasn't posted: if it's a minor thing, fix that and resubmit it. If it's more major and systematic, though, or if he didn't say anything at all, then the list probably needs more work. Post your thoughts on the board and we'll be glad to help you out.
28. Be prepared for criticism. Lists are famously a lightning rod for criticism on this site, largely for the reasons I alluded to in the notes on Choosing the Items: everyone has a different gaming history, and thus they all have different ideas for what should be included in your list. Generally speaking, if you have a list posted, at least one person will say it's the worst list ever posted on the site. They're wrong. The worst list on the site is this one: http://www.gamefaqs.com/features/top10/1813.html
Don't let the criticism bother you. Give any criticism the weight that comes with how well thought-out it is. Any idiot can write off, "Worst list ever!" or "Fails for not having (some game) on it." Those aren't intelligent criticisms, and given the work you've put into your list, your opinion carries far, far more weight than theirs. But when constructive criticism comes, appreciate it. You don't necessarily have to agree with it, and you can feel free to defend your list; but be constructive about it in return. Ignore non-constructive criticism, and treat constructive criticism constructively yourself. And don't worry: when it comes to people bashing your list, we've got your back. This board has a wonderful culture of protecting authors and shunning those that just want to shoot their mouth off about their ideas without taking two seconds to defend them.
Credit: This FAQ was contains tips from numerous Top 10 List writers. Thanks especially go to Sanctuary Remix's "Making Top Tens for Dummies" thread, which has been distilled out for this topic. Thanks also go to BlueGunstarHero, MotherKojiro, Nazifpour, Stalolin, FRIEDSTRUCK, GamerJM, and shadow_571.
That's all for the guide itself. Feel free to post any additional suggestions you have in this thread.
Come by the totally OFFICIAL Top 10 List discussion board!