Best Practices for Writing Clear Numbered and Bulleted Lists

Business Writing Bulleted Lists and Numbered Lists

Bulleted and numbered lists help readers see and understand the list items easily. When lists are embedded in paragraphs, the items are jumbled together in a mass of words.

However, text that does not have a recognizable set of items is clearer when the writer keeps the text in paragraphs. This explanation will help you decide when to put text into bulleted or numbered lists and when to keep it in paragraphs. Follow these three steps:

  1. Name the sections of your documents.
  2. Decide whether the section contains items that pertain to that key term or key phrase name.
  3. If the section key term or key phrase name does not require items, don’t use a list for the section.

1. Name the sections of your documents.

Each section of your document explains a topic that is significantly different from the topics in the other sections. Give each section a name. The name will be a key term or key phrase you will use consistently throughout the rest of the document to refer to the topic in the section. Usually use the key term or key phrase in the heading for the section and early in the body of the section. Don’t use an alternate term or phrase for these key names.

2. Decide whether the section contains items that pertain to that key term or key phrase name.

Some key terms or key phrases require items. Examples are “conclusions,” “recommendations,” “locations,” “topics,” “items,” and so on. When you use the plural of these key terms, the reader will expect to read a list of whatever the name is. If you have a key term or key phrase for the section that requires a list of items, cr eate a numbered or bulleted list. Use a numbered list for items that must be in a specific order, such as “steps” and “timeline of events.” Use a bulleted list for items that do not have to be in a specific order.

3. If the section key term or key phrase name does not require items, don’t use a list for the section.

If the section key term or key phrase name does not require items, don’t create a list for the section; leave the text in paragraph form. The three numbered sections in this explanation are in an numbered list because they are steps. Within the sections, however, the text is in paragraphs. The key phrase names for the sections don’t require lists of items.

In general, assume you will not put text into a list format. Create a list only when the key term or key phrase name suggests you need a list and the text contains items that fit with the key term or key phrase name.

Examples

This text contains two sections. One section contains a list. The other should be a narration.

We observed Simon in the school setting on March 13. We noticed aggressive behavior in the classroom and lunch room. We believe we can identify the reason he is becoming aggressive in his relationships based on what we have seen. When we understand the reason, we will come to a solution that will eliminate the problem the parents have seen at home.

There are factors we believe are important to note about such behavior in children. Some of this type of behavior is normal for a 6-year-old. Arrival of a new baby in the home will contribute to acting out. When a child is an only child and has been at home with only the mother, the separation can result in acting out as a way to be sent home. Family difficulties such as the impending divorce may also result in aggressive behavior.

Some writers mistakenly attempt to use lists for all text. The result would be a report like this:

  • We observed Simon in the school setting on March 13.
  • We noticed aggressive behavior in the classroom and lunch room.
  • We believe we can identify the reason he is becoming aggressive in his relationships based on what we have seen.
  • When we understand the reason, we will come to a solution that will eliminate the problem the parents have seen at home.
  • There are factors we believe are important to note about such behavior in children.
  • Some of this type of behavior is normal for a 6-year-old.
  • Arrival of a new baby in the home will contribute to acting out.
  • When a child is an only child and has been at home with only the mother, the separation can result in acting out as a way to be sent home.
  • Family difficulties such as the impending divorce may also result in aggressive behavior.

Putting all of the sentences into a list makes the text more difficult to read and understand.

The first paragraph has no key word describing the sentences, such as “factors.” It must remain as a paragraph. It does contain “things” or “facts,” but those names are too general to require lists and don’t lend themselves to having an introduction specifying a number of items. The writer should not have forced them into a list.

The second paragraph is a list. The key word name for the list in the second paragraph is “factors.” The entire name is “factors we believe are important to note about such behavior in children.” The writer realizes the text contains four items that are factors. More specifically for this list, the items are “factors we believe are important to note about such behavior in children.” As a result, the writer must write the second paragraph in a list.

One acceptable form for the report follows:

We observed Simon in the school setting on March 13. We noticed aggressive behavior in the classroom and lunch room. We believe we can identify the reason he is becoming aggressive in his relationships based on what we have seen. When we understand the reason, we will come to a solution that will eliminate the problem the parents have seen at home.

We believe the following four factors are important to realize about such behavior in children:

  • Some of this type of behavior is normal for a 6-year-old.
  • Arrival of a new baby in the home will contribute to acting out.
  • When a child is an only child and has been at home with only the mother, the separation can result in acting out as a way to be sent home.
  • Family difficulties such as the impending divorce may also result in aggressive behavior.

Creating Lists within the Sections

Follow the same guidelines to decide when to create lists for parts of your explanations and when to write narratives for other parts. You may have a section of your document that is in narrative form. As you write the paragraphs, if you see two or more items that pertain to a key word or key phrase, break out the items into a bulleted or numbered list. Introduce the list using the key word or key phrase name and a number. Then list the items.

This is an example of text in paragraph form that has a list in it:

The Internal Conveyances Department performs important plant tasks each day. The department moves employees within the Rudolph Plant complex.  The vans take employees from the gate to their work areas.  Another function of the vans is to transport employees to storage areas to pick up supplies.  Employees are also taken to areas such as the cafeteria and training rooms.  In addition, Internal Conveyances Department delivers internal packages, tools, and inter-office mail.  The Internal Conveyances Department has a staff of seven people. The vans receive regular maintenance, and the company replaces them every two years. Replaced vans are available for employees to purchase at a greatly discounted price.

To find out if this section is a list, follow this procedure:

  1. Identify a potential key word or phrase name for the list that you see in the text or that you decide is a candidate. In this case, it could be “tasks,” a word that appears in the first line.
  2. Look at the sentences to see whether they are all tasks. If so, create a bulleted or numbered list containing all the sentences as list items.
  3. If none of the sentences are tasks, consider another key word or key phrase name. If you find no suitable key word or key phrase name, don’t create a list.
  4. If some sentences are tasks but some are not, create a list within the narration. The list items will all fit the criteria for being tasks.

Don’t Make a List of All the Text

This is an example of a revision of the text that is not correct. The list includes items that are not tasks:

  • The Internal Conveyances Department moves employees within the Rudolph Plant complex.
  • The vans take employees from the gate to their work areas.
  • Another function of the vans is to transport employees to storage areas to pick up supplies.
  • Employees are also taken to areas such as the cafeteria and training rooms.
  • In addition, the Internal Conveyances Department delivers internal packages, tools, and inter-office mail.
  • The Internal Conveyances Department has a staff of seven people.
  • The vans receive regular maintenance, and the company replaces them every two years.
  • Replaced vans are available for employees to purchase at a greatly discounted price.

Placing sentences into lists indiscriminately loses the value of the lists. The reader cannot identify and remember the items in the lists that belong together.

Decide which Items in the Example Must Be in a List

The writer can see that the last two sentences don’t fit in the list as tasks, so they should be in a separate paragraph. Each paragraph has a key word or key phrase name just as each list has. In this case, the last two sentences  have the key phrase name of “other facts about the department.” The change in name requires a change to a new paragraph.

One acceptable format for the text follows:

The Internal Conveyances Department performs the following five important plant tasks each day:

  • Moving employees within the Rudolph Plant complex
  • Taking employees from the gate to their work areas
  • Transporting employees to storage areas to pick up supplies
  • Taking employees to areas such as the cafeteria and training rooms
  • Delivering internal packages, tools, and inter-office mail

The department has a staff of seven people. The vans receive regular maintenance, and the company replaces them every two years. Replaced vans are available for employees to purchase at a greatly discounted price.

Additional Notes about Lists

These are important notes about writing bulleted or numbered lists:

  • Assign a key word or key phrase name to each list.
  • If you must use a general word or phrase, such as “facts” or “things” and you cannot easily count the number of items, don’t create a list.
  • Make sure every item is an example of the key word or key phrase name.
  • Introduce every list with a sentence that uses the key word or key phrase name for the items in the list.
  • Usually write the number of items in the introduction, such as “three conclusions.”
  • Use a colon at the end of the introduction if the words preceding the colon are a complete sentence. If the words are not a complete sentence, use a comma or no punctuation.
  • If the items in the list are complete sentences, capitalize the first letter of each item and end each item with a period.
  • If the items in the list are not complete sentences, usually capitalize the first letter of the first word and put no punctuation and no “and” at the ends of the items.
  • If the items in the list flow from the introductory sentence as though they were a continuation of that sentence, you may choose not to capitalize the first words of the items, but do not use end punctuation.
  • Every item must fit with the introduction to the list if the items are not themselves complete sentences.
  • Make list items parallel in construction.
  • Use bullets for lists that don’t have to be in one order and numbers for lists that must be in order.
  • Put the bullet or number for the list within one or two blank characters of the bullet or number.
  • When the items wrap to two lines, put six blank points between the items.

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2018-07-15T16:15:12+00:00

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