How to keep bullet-point lists on target

May 16, 2018 2:58 pm

When you’re writing about a topic with lots of important points for readers to know, a bullet-point list can make a useful addition to your blog post or guest editorial. Such lists

  • Offer an alternative to long, dense sentences,
  • Highlight key ideas in an easy-to-scan way,
  • Provide a visual break in what might otherwise be a mass of dull gray text, and
  • Can be effective in other types of content: PowerPoint presentations, brochures, posters and more.

Bullet-point lists can make reading easier for readers… but only if writers do them well. Written badly, a list can confuse rather than inform, and lead to distraction rather than focus. Consider, for example, a list like this, which

  • It doesn’t flow naturally from the introductory text
  • Mix and match tenses and voices
  • Some lists aren’t consistent from bullet point to bullet point
  • Don’t work when read as a sentence.

Let’s fix this bullet list by first putting all the items into a single sentence, like this:

Consider, for example, a list like this, which it doesn’t flow naturally from the introductory text mix and match tenses and voices some lists aren’t consistent from bullet point to bullet point don’t work when read as a sentence.

When written this way, the sentence’s mistakes become glaringly obvious:

  • There are no commas to separate different ideas,
  • None of the ideas works as a correct sentence with the introductory text (i.e., “Consider, for example, a list like this, which don’t work when read as a sentence.”),
  • There’s no parallel construction (i.e., some points start with a noun – “it” or “some” – while others begin with a verb/verb combination – “mix and match” or “don’t”), and
  • Nouns/verbs don’t agree with the introductory text (i.e., “a list like this, which… don’t work…”).

So let’s try that example again, and correct the list’s mistakes:

Consider, for example, a list like this, which

  • Doesn’t flow naturally from the introductory text,
  • Mixes and matches tenses and voices,
  • Isn’t consistent from bullet point to bullet point, and
  • Doesn’t work when read as a sentence.

Now, depending upon your house style, it’s not always necessary to separate bullet points by commas or to end lists with a full stop. It can be acceptable to write bullet lists without separating punctuation of any kind, or to present them as standalone content without any introductory text. However, by making sure your lists are always clear, consistent and grammatical from point to point, you’ll have a much better chance of writing copy that hits its intended target.

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