Four tips for writing brilliant bulleted lists

16 July 2018

Often called ‘dot points’, bulleted lists can be an effective business writing technique to break up large slabs of text or to make information stand out. Used appropriately, lists can make your report, email or other communication easier to read.

A simple bulleted list might contain only two or three items, each item containing only one or two words (sentence fragments). These lists will have a ‘stem statement’ to which each bullet relates. Other lists contain complete sentences.

When writing lists there are several key elements you need to put in place.

1. Decide on a pattern and stick to it.

Each bullet point in a well-structured list will follow a consistent grammatical structure (known as parallel structure). Compare the following two lists.

Disorganised structure

You can reduce stress by:

  • learning to resolve conflicts
  • controlling your workload
  • relaxation techniques
  • exercising regularly
  • ask for support when you need it.

The third and the fifth bullet points in this list break the –ing pattern. This is a little like hitting a pothole in the road and being jolted out of your comfort zone.

Parallel structure

You can reduce stress by:

  • learning to resolve conflicts
  • controlling your workload
  • practising relaxation techniques
  • exercising regularly
  • asking for support.

There are several different word patterns you could use for your list. For example, you could also write the list about stress as a series of instructions.

To reduce stress you can:

  • learn to resolve conflict
  • control your workload
  • practise relaxation techniques
  • exercise regularly
  • ask for support.

To check whether your list follows parallel structure, read your stem statement followed by each individual bullet point. Does each point flow from the stem statement? This technique might sound laborious, but it works as you'll immediately know if you've hit a pothole with one of your points.

2. Use correct punctuation.

The stem statement of your list is followed by a colon (:), never a semicolon (;). The most common punctuation style for bulleted lists is open punctuation. With the open punctuation style, you don’t need punctuation at the end of each point, except the last one, which has a full stop. But if the list contains complete sentences, punctuate each point as you would normally punctuate a sentence.

3. Be consistent. 

If your organisation has a writing style guide, you will need to follow their preferences for list style. Most organisations use black round bullets at the beginning of each point and open punctuation. 

Consistency also applies to whether you use sentence fragments in your list or complete sentences. Avoid mixing sentences and fragments in the same list. For a list with sentence fragments, the first word of each point is in lower case. For a list with complete sentences, use a capital letter at the beginning of each point.

Finally, decide whether to indent the bullets or block them to the left, then apply this style consistently throughout your report. 

4. Don’t overdo it.

One long bulleted list, even if perfectly structured, will not make your report easier to read. Limit your bulleted lists to no more than five points, or eight maximum, and intersperse your lists with paragraphs and headings. Simply putting a bullet point in front of a paragraph will not make your report easier to read. If your point goes over one or two lines, consider converting your list to well-structured paragraphs.

Readers expect to follow predictable patterns. By using parallel structure and consistent punctuation and style, your lists will not only be easier to read, they will look more professional.

For help producing clear, concise and professional reports, contact Concise Writing Consultancy on 02 9238 6638.

 

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