Session 9: Using Bullet Lists to Your Advantage

Bullet lists – also called vertical lists – are a useful, popular writing tool. Indeed, wide-spread adoption of PowerPoint in the business world is probably one of the reasons bullet lists are so widely used. (The default setting for many PowerPoint templates is a title and then a bullet list.)

I’m a big fan of vertical lists. A well-crafted list is a terrific way to:

  • provide visual appeal
  • draw attention to particular information
  • reinforce relationships among ideas/items
  • limit repetitious wording

I’ll talk a bit about each of these pluses in a minute. But, before I do, did you notice that I specifically said a “well-crafted” list? I draw your attention to this because a poorly crafted bullet lists can be confusing and frustrating for readers. (They also make the writer seem lazy or careless.)

Here’s an example of a poorly crafted bullet list:

Here are some of the actions developers use that can be beneficial to the developer and community members:

  • Showing a commitment to two-way communication
  • Straightforward, timely, accurate information about the proposed project
  • Public information meetings to explain proposed projects

As you can see, the poor reader has to figure out exactly what the lazy writer means.

Visual appeal

The visual appeal I’m talking about isn’t because you’ve chosen nice looking symbols to mark the list items. The visual appeal comes from the fact that with a vertical list there is more white space on the page. More white space makes the document look more welcoming to readers, which is very important.

Drawing attention to information

The added white space provided by a vertical list also helps draw the reader’s attention to the information contained in the list. Bullet lists are a visual cue that readers remember – even if they don’t remember the specific information provided in a vertical list. So, if they go back and look for information, it’s more likely they’ll find it by looking for a list.

Think about a list of items you’re enclosing or attaching. By listing them vertically – instead of in a sentence with a commas between items – readers immediately sense how many (or few) items there are. As well, readers can quickly scan the list for an idea of what’s included. And, if they go back to find the list, it’ll jump out at them because of the vertical formatting.

Reinforcing relationships

When a reader sees a bullet list, they automatically assume the items are related. This helps increase their understanding and can help them make connections and remember the points listed.

Limiting repetition

Because the items in a vertical list are related, they have something in common. So, the list’s introduction – the “preamble” – should contain the words/ideas each item has in common. As a result, the preamble replaces words you’d otherwise write with respect to each item. The result: no repetition.

Why folks struggle crafting bullet lists

Many business writers have trouble crafting bullet lists. This is probably because they were never taught how to. One reason no one taught you how to structure – or punctuate – a bullet list is because such lists aren’t – strictly speaking – a grammatical construct. As a result, there are no universal rules about how to craft them. (Unlike, for example, the rule about ending sentences with something that demonstrates a full stop, like a period, question mark, or exclamation mark.)

In the next Boot Camp session – which I’ll post later this week – we’ll talk about how to craft a good bullet list.

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