Bulleted Lists: The Online Writer’s Friend

Why do so many writers and editors seem biased against bulleted lists? Even worse, why do they so often burden the bulleted lists they do use with the ill-fitting punctuation of a complex sentence – almost as if apologizing for creating a true list?

Let’s face it: In online media, and even in many types of nonfiction print publishing, the bulleted list can be an excellent tool to enhance readability and comprehension – if used with care. A bulleted list is definitely much easier to read and understand than a list that is shoehorned into a sentence or paragraph.

Here is my advice for using bulleted lists in most nonfiction writing – especially business, academic, news, or government documents, whether in print or online…

WHY USE BULLETED LISTS?

Bulleted list can enhance:

  • “Scanning.” Most readers are busy people. They tend to quickly “scan” a document first, to decide whether it merits line-by-line reading. When scanning, their eyes pick out the most visually prominent bits of text – especially headlines, subheads, highlighted keywords, and bulleted lists.
  • Readability. Once someone has decided to actually read a page, bulleted lists allow faster access to information. List items are small, discrete “chunks” that are physically easier on the eye and psychologically easier to follow and comprehend.
  • Comprehension. The bulleted-list format emphasizes how the points are related to each other – what they all have in common, and whether there’s a specific or implied sequence or hierarchy. When readers grasp this context, they’ll absorb the information contained in the list more easily.

WHICH STYLE OF LIST TO USE?

There are two basic styles of bulleted lists. Each delivers a different type of context:

  • Ordered (numbered or lettered) lists are the best choice if a clear sequence or hierarchy among the items lists is crucial to making your point. Examples: Lists of most popular survey responses, instructions to follow, etc.
  • Unordered lists (identical bullets) will suffice in most cases. This format implies that each item in list is of roughly equal value, and that there is no necessary sequence or hierarchy. (Like this list you’re reading right now.)

FORMAT AND PUNCTUATE LISTS FOR READABILITY

These tips should greatly improve how well your bulleted lists work from your readers’ perspective:

  • Introduce each list with a “so what” statement. It’s important to preface every bulleted list with a brief statement that sets the context for the details you are about to deliver. Don’t assume your readers will always understand what ties the list together, or what the purpose of the list is. If you’re about to dump a bunch of details on people, first explain why they should pay attention and care enough to read the full list.
  • Start each item with a highlighted title. From what I’ve read about readability issues, most people quickly scan content before actually reading it. Bulleted lists are scannable, but you can make them even easier to scan if each item begins with a brief highlighted (boldface) title. This has the effect of providing an at-a-glance “table of contents” for the list. Each list item title should summarize the main point of that item, emphasizing what makes that item unique and worthwhile in the context of the list. However, if the list is comprised entirely of very brief items (just a few words long each) item titles usually aren’t necessary.
  • Punctuate highlighted titles consistently within a list. You’ll notice that in some of the bulleted lists in this article (like this one) I conclude the boldfaced item title with a period. However, in the second list (above) I simply used bold type to indicate the title. In that list, gramatically speaking, the title was part of the initial sentence of each item. Of course you’re free to specify for your site or organization identical punctuation for every bulleted list. Also, you may choose to to conclude item titles with a colon rather than a period. That’s fine, those style choices are yours to make. Personally, I feel it’s most important to be consistent about title punctuation within a given list. I prefer to allow flexibility in terms of which type of item title punctuation communicates most effectively for a given list. But that’s just my view.
  • Limit list items to one paragraph each. When creating a true bulleted list, it gets awkward to try to specify items that are more than one paragraph long. You can do it, of course – but the list gets harder to read. If a particular item starts getting unwieldy, look for a way to split it into two or more items. Alternatively, it may be possible to separate some of the information out into a sub-list. If you can’t limit one or more list items to a single paragraph, rethink how you’re organizing your information.
  • Punctuate each list item as a standalone element. Many of us were educated to punctuate items in a bulleted list as if writing a continuous complex sentence. However, I cannot see what kind of sense that makes for bulleted lists that will be read only by visual means, rather than aloud. For visual readability, it makes more sense to punctuate bulleted list items as standalone elements. Begin each item with a capital letter. If an item is a complete sentence, end it with a period. However, not all list items need be complete sentences. That depends on the nature of the material and the tone of the document.

2 thoughts on Bulleted Lists: The Online Writer’s Friend

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  1. Hear! Hear! I now pledge to use more bulleted lists in my blogging! (Especially in the GCF website, which is actually more educational and less ‘me, me’ than there other blogs I keep.)

  2. I agree that bulletted lists are great and under-used by a lot of people. They are also useful in resumes and selection criteria responses in job applications. Busy recruiters often scan first! Good tip for job applicants.