Friday, July 05, 2019

Better Writing Boot Camp – Session 10: How to Craft Bullet Lists

In the last Boot Camp session we looked at why you should use bullet lists in your business writing. In this session, we’ll focus on how to craft a good bullet list. I’ll also give you my quick-and-dirty “rules of thumb” related to bullet lists – including my suggestions for punctuating them.

Structuring a Vertical List
There are two parts to a bullet list: the preamble and the bullet points themselves. As I mentioned in the last Boot Camp session, the preamble introduces each item on the list. The preamble can be a single word, a phrase, or a full sentence. Here’s a bullet list from the beginning of Session 9:

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

“A well-crafted list is a terrific way to:” is the preamble of that list.

Crafting the Preamble
The most important thing to remember about the preamble is that it must work for EVERY item on the list. So, when you read the preamble’s words together with the words in an item on the list, you have a grammatically correct, complete idea. When crafting a list, it’s important to test each bullet with the preamble. By doing this, you will be able to tell right away if an item doesn’t work. And, if an item doesn’t work, it’s up to you to:
  • omit the item from the list, or
  • modify the preamble.

Here’s what the preamble test for the two-item bullet list above looks like:

… it’s up to you to omit the item
… it’s up to you to modify the preamble

Whew, both items work with the preamble.

Crafting the Items in the List
Regarding the bulleted items themselves, every item must be:
  1. structured the same grammatically, and
  2. related to the other items listed (in terms of content).

In terms of grammatical structure, the two items in the number list above are similarly structured (for example, both initial adjectives end in “ed”). In the numbered list under the heading: Crafting the Preamble, on the other hand, both items started with an infinitive form of the verbs.

Both items on the numbered list are contextually related because both are criteria that each bulleted item must satisfy. Of course, when the list is short, there’s less of a chance you’ll include something that doesn’t relate to the other item(s). If you find items that don’t belong, don’t include them in the list. (If many items don’t work with the preamble or don’t seem to relate to the other items, consider ditching the list.)

Here’s an example of a poorly crafted bullet list from a bank’s Human Resources manual. Can you tell what’s wrong with it? How would you fix it?
A personal banking officer (PBO):
  • Provides customers with one-stop shopping for all retail product sales;
  • Responsible for identifying, understanding and meeting customers’ financial needs;
  • Follows a disciplined approach to proactive sales activities;
  • Generally located in a private cubical.

The Problems
The list has two problems:
  1. The structure of the items is not the same.
  2. The last item isn’t directly related to the others – three are responsibilities of a PBO but the last is about where the PBO sits!

Here’s how I would fix the list:

A personal banking officer’s (PBO’s) responsibilities include:
  • providing customers with one-stop shopping for all retail product sales;
  • identifying, understanding, and meeting customers’ financial needs; and
  • following a disciplined approach to proactive sales activities.

PBOs are generally located in a private cubical.

Rules of Thumb
Since bullet lists aren’t grammatical constructs, there are no strict rules related to punctuating them. But, there are some “best practices” that I can share with you. These rules of thumb fall into two categories: some I believe you must follow and some that are strong suggestions.

When creating a Bullet List, you must follow these rules:
  • The preamble must make sense for every item in the list.
  • The end punctuation of the preamble must be a colon.
  • The items in the list must be structured the same.
  • The items must be contextually related.

When creating a Bullet List, I recommend you also follow these rules:
  • If every item in the list is short (fewer than three words), you don’t need any punctuation. Alternatively, if you want to, you can use a comma at the end of each item and a period on the last item.
  • If the items are long but none are complete sentences, use a semicolon at the end of each and a period on the last item.
  • If any of the items contain punctuation within them, use semicolons at the end of each and a period on the last item.
  • If the items are full sentences, begin each with initial caps and end each with a period.
  • If items are not complete sentences, you can use initial lower case letters.
  • Don’t use numbers or letters (instead of bullets) unless you have a reason to. For example, if you want to draw the reader’s attention to the fact that there are four rules, by all means, number them.

A last word on formatting
Many word processing programs indent bullets. Such formatting is terrific because it adds to the visual appeal and so on. If your program isn’t set up to automatically indent bullets, see if you can change the default settings.

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