Day 9 – How to Write a Successful Bulleted List
Because of our style of glance-reading, bulleted lists are very popular. They help emphasise a point and allow the readers to take information in quickly. However, they are often over-used and incongruent. This article provides three pieces of advice to writing successful bullets.
Bulleted lists add a dimension to copy-writing that can’t be done any other way. It follows numbering in it’s ability to state clearly a thought or support an idea. For that reason, they should be used sparingly. Over-use them and they lose their importance. If your document requires many sets of bullet lists, then you should reconsider the text.
Just look at this example and it’s clear why bullets work. In the first example, straightaway you have four ways to write ‘Reason Why’ headlines.
In the second example, it’s harder to find the examples. Bullets serve a really useful purpose in documents.
Here are three things to consider when using bullets.
1. Parallelism in Bullets
There are two parallelisms that should be considered when writing bulleted lists: conceptual parallelism and grammatical parallelism.
A. Conceptual parallelism
Conceptual parallelism occurs where the bullets support the sentence made just previous to the bulleted list. The points made in the bullets should not overlap and should be specific to the point being made.
For example, a client of ours, The Finishing School produced a flyer promoting their courses for the year. It included all the topics that they planned to teach.
This list is conceptually parallel.
Course Topics Include:
- How to get the most out of your make-up
- Use table manners to impress your fellow diners
- How to behave at parties to maximise your fun
- Know how much to give (and get) as a tip
- Increase your efficiency at home to save time & money
- How to enter a group conversation
Each topic starts with a strong verb and describes the courses that the Finishing School will teach.
An example of a list that isn’t conceptually parallel:
Reasons for the weight-gain included:
- Bad diet
- Lack of exercise
- Inability to read weigh scales because of lost glasses
The last point isn’t a reason for weigh-gain. It’s not specific to the point. It could be a lead-in the paragraph after the bulleted list.
B. Grammatical Parallelism
Every bullet of a list should have the same grammatical structure. If you begin a bullet with an active verb, then each bullet should begin with an active verb. Similarly, if you begin with an noun, then continue on with a noun.
This is a grammatically correct list:
At school, little Luke does a number of tasks. Luke does the following: :
- Washes the dishes with the teacher
- Runs around the playground
- Draws coloured pictures
- Tells a story about his weekend activities
Each bullet starts with a verb and describes what Luke does.
This is an example of an incorrect grammatical list:
Each teacher deems what is important to her class. This can include:
- Washing dishes with the children
- Provide colouring pencils for art work
- Fill up the sandpit when empty
This list begins with an active verb, (-ing), and follows with two verbs. If all words ended with -ing, then it would be grammatically correct.
2. Punctuation of Bullets
Everyone has their own idea of punctuation of bullets. When I wrote the word processing module for ‘Training for ECDL, A Practical course in StarOffice 8‘, we had many discussions over the punctuation of bullets. Do we put a comma after each one, do we put a full stop or do we just leave them blank?
Let me tell it to you straight – there is no one real and fast rule of punctuation of bullets. You’ll read many ideas such as each bullet can lead to the last bullet and therefore only the last bullet has a full stop, or semi-colons should be used.
Take my advice: Create your own style guidelines. That way, every piece of literature you produce will be consistent.
3. Number of bullets
Have you ever seen a list that seems to just go and on yet you can’t remember any details from it?
Not only does a long list defeat the purpose of scanability, it also lends itself to not being read or remembered. George Miller back in the 1950s put forward a theory that the short term memory can process 7 (plus or minus 2) pieces of information.
This means that anymore than 7 items in a bullet and the short-term memory may not process it. To get the best use of your bulleted list, make sure you have no more than seven items.
You can take this one step further and only have 5-7 words per bullet.
Day 9 – Homework
Look at your organisations list of bullets and see if where the consistency is. Do you:
- use commas at the end of a sentence,
- use periods or full stops at the end.
- have no punctuation at all
- have a mixture of punctuation,.
Decide on a style and use it from here on in. From now on, be consistent with your bulleted lists.