Using Bullet Points and Lists

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by Catherine Hibbard

Bullet points are a popular tool when writing business and technical documents. However, if you take a business writing course, you may receive conflicting information on bulleted lists. Most writers agree bullet points draw attention to important information. Readers like bullet points because they are visually appealing and make it easy to quickly find pertinent information.

The Difference between Bullets and Numbers

Choose your identification marks carefully. Business writers use numbers (1, 2, 3) or letters (a, b, c) to indicate sequence or importance. Use them only when you want to indicate chronology or importance. If you have a group of related items that are not sequential, use neutral or egalitarian symbols such as bullet points, checkmarks, or other computer symbols. The same rule applies if all the listed items are equal in importance.

Many writers use numbers before bullets when they should use a graphic symbol instead. The main difference between graphics and numbers is what they signify. Numbers are used to signify two things: sequence or priority. If you use numbers with your list of items, you are saying, "My first item is the most important, my second item is the next most important, and my third item is less important than my second." On the other hand, when you use graphic symbols (i.e., the darkened circle, the diamond, the check mark, the open box), you are telling your reader that all of the bulleted items are of equal value or importance. Think of the graphics you use as being egalitarian marks signifying that all items are equally important, and there is no chronological order.

The following example is a list of bulleted items with graphic symbols. What do the symbols signify?

A "honey-do" list:

  • Take out the garbage.
  • Feed the dog.
  • Drop off the dry cleaning.
  • Wash the car.
  • Buy stamps at the post office.

If your answer is, "All of the tasks are equally important," you are absolutely correct. The dog may disagree with your answer, but the author of the "honey-do" list would not.

The next example is a list of bulleted items using numbers. What do the numbers signify?

We must do the following before we can sell our house:

  1. Remove the kitchen wallpaper.
  2. Paint the kitchen.
  3. Interview at least three realtors.
  4. Select a realtor.
  5. Determine the listing price.

If you answered, "The first thing the homeowner must do is remove the wallpaper in the kitchen, then paint the kitchen, then interview at least three realtors, then choose a realtor, and then decide on the listing price," you are right again. In this case, sequence is very important. By using numbers, you are telling your reader that the actions should follow a specific chronological order.

Creating Parallel Items in a List

Your bullets will be easier to read and understand if you put them in parallel form. Parallel form means that all items listed in a series begin with the same part of speech, are approximately the same length, and are given a similar format. It does not matter which grammatical construction you use in listing as long as you are consistent. Action verbs are a good way to begin items in a list. The following example shows bulleted items that begin with an action verb and are about the same length.

The following tips may help you cut expenses on your next trip to New York City:

  • Check discount hotel Internet sites for affordable lodging.
  • Purchase tickets for Broadway plays the same day as the play.
  • Book your flight to Newark airport instead of LaGuardia.
  • Use the subway system rather than taxis.

New York City does not have to be an expensive vacation destination.

Note that there are periods after each of the bullet points. When the bullet points are complete sentences, they have a period at the end. Remember that short, command sentences are still considered complete sentences, even when they begin with the understood second person "you." Do not mix clauses and sentences when creating bullet points. Use one or the other.

Bullet points are great for calling your reader's attention to specific information. As you use bullets in your memos, letters, reports, and other work documents, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Keep lists brief.
  • Begin with action verbs when possible.
  • Make verb tenses and forms consistent.
  • Limit your list to three to six items—if possible.

After the last item in your list, do not just stop. Conclude with at least one sentence to give your readers a sense of completeness. Ideally, the wrap-up sentence emphasizes the importance of the list itself.

Remember to use bulleted lists sparingly. No one wants to read a document that has more bullets than narrative. Bullets are like spice; use them judiciously rather than indiscriminately. If you take a business writing workshop, already knowing how to create an effective bulleted list will put you at "the head of the class."

About the Author

Catherine Hibbard

Catherine S. Hibbard is a nationally recognized expert in business and technical writing. Her company, Cypress Media Group, is an advertising, public relations, and training firm that provides training and consulting primarily related to business and technical writing, presentation skills, and media relations.

Most Influential Techcomm

Catherine was ranked 9th on The Top 100 Influencers in #Techcomm bloggers list in 2013.

She can be reached by e-mail at catherine@cypressmedia.net.

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