The magic of bullet lists

Those humble little dotted lists.

I just love ‘em.

What better way to talk about bullet lists than to incorporate a bullet list in this post. I love bullet lists because they:

  • aid scanning
  • help break up long sentences
  • draw your reader’s eye to something important.
Bullet list
More of these, please!

Bullets help readers scan

We all know people read differently on screen than they do on paper, right? And we know that bullet points help your reader to scan your content but have you ever thought, why?

Why do bullet points work so well?

When we read slabs of text, our eyes and our brain become accustomed to seeing and reading slabs of text.

But then suddenly…

BOOM!

There’s a bullet list that interrupts our flow.

Our brains notice something different in the shape of the text and we are drawn to it. We slow down and pay more attention without even consciously thinking about it.

Bullet lists can be quite manipulative! So use them for the power of good.

If you want to bring something important to your reader’s attention, whack it in a bullet list.

Bullets break up long sentences

That’s kind of obvious. Text is harder to read onscreen than it is in printed form.

When we’re reading blog posts, it’s not usually for the fun of it. It’s because we want to learn something. We’re often researching and looking for specific information.

I often use bullet lists when I talk about three or more points in a single sentence.

We should always be mixing up our content with sentences of varying lengths and paragraphs containing varying amounts of sentences. A paragraph can even be a single word. Varying your sentence length helps makes your writing more lyrical and pleasant to read.

Bullet lists are a great way to mix up your content and keep your reader interested.

Bullet list best practice

There are no fixed rules about how you should or shouldn’t use bullet lists, but here are some best practice tips I’ve gathered over the years.

Parallel structure

Bullet list items should all start in the same way.

If the first item in your list starts with a verb, then all subsequent list items should start with a verb.

When you write the intro to your list, add a colon to the end of the introductory statement.

Each list item that follows should fit with that introductory statement.

So, for example, you can write ‘Bullet lists are great because they’:

  • draw the eye
  • help scan the page
  • break up long sentences.

But you can’t write ‘Bullet lists are great because they’:

  • draw the eye
  • readers can scan the page
  • long sentences can be broken up.

They + reader don’t go together. Nor does they + long sentences. These two list items don’t fit with the structure of the intro phrase.

It’s also a good idea to try and make your bullet list items similar in length. It looks neater and they’re easier to read.

Start with verbs

It’s not absolutely necessary, but starting list items with action words is also good practice.

If you choose to start your list with a noun, make sure you consistently use nouns for each list item. Same if you start with an adjective.

When using verbs, make sure you use the same form of the verb — don’t switch between tenses.

Avoid second and third level lists

This is when you have a nested list within a list. It can get quite confusing for the reader and make your list hard to read, which goes against the whole point of having a list in the first place.

I always edit nested lists into separate lists.

Be consistent

Don’t mix full sentences and fragments in the one list. It reads oddly.

Rewrite your list if your list is mixing sentences and fragments.

Styling bullet lists

Start with a capital? Don’t start with a capital? End the final bullet point with a full stop? Don’t end with a full stop?

It doesn’t matter. Unless you’re presenting full sentences in your bullet list — then you would apply normal sentence case and use a full stop at the end of each point.

What does matter though is applying a consistent style throughout your content, across your whole site.

Don’t use a semi-colon at the end of each list item. Don’t use ‘and’ or ‘or’ after the second last bullet list.

My preference is to use a lower case letter for the first word and not use any punctuation at the end of each list item, except for the final bullet point.

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Sandra

Originally published at The Smarter Writer.