Lists are important tools for writers. They create hierarchy, emphasis, and, in some cases, sequence. They make complex information easier to process, sometimes giving readers the ability to retain material from a simple glance. That being said, lists need attention to function effectively, and they should not be used too liberally. What follows is a beginner’s guide to writing lists.
Anatomy of a List
Let’s consider format. Regardless of the type, a list requires more than one item, and there must be some means of separating these items into digestible thoughts. To make things easy on the reader, a writer should limit lists to less than eight items, and these items are ideally kept on one page. Items alone are unhelpful, though.
If everything on a page of content is condensed into short bullets, reading comprehension can be compromised. We need context to frame the information being listed, and this context usually comes in the form of introductions, conclusions, or other forms of explanatory text.
There should also be consistency. A list needs to possess parallel structure, which means its grammatical elements demand synchronization. If the first item is a noun, each subsequent entry needs to be a noun. The same applies for adjectives, verbs, gerundial phrases, or any other part of speech. If that first item has an article tag or preposition before it, then the others need the same treatment.
Writing lists is a subject with a surprising amount of content to cover. What I have outlined above is just a basic guide to writing lists — that is, strategies to make lists appealing and useful. There is more a writer should know before putting pen to paper.
But Which One?
So, the concept of a list is pretty straightforward: write a brief introduction, cite relevant items, add any additional information at the end, and you’re ready to move on. But what if extra emphasis is needed? Some material needs to be structurally separate from the rest of a page. There are, in fact, two distinct clades of “list.” One even has several sub-species.
“Bob has a hammer, a nail, and a board.” This is the simplest form of a list, and it is one that most writers are probably familiar with. There’s nothing special about it, as it has no colon, it uses only commas, and its elements are all contained in a single sentence. This is what technical writers call a run-in list.
In short, a run-in list is one that is contained in its original sentence. It remains a piece of the constituent paragraph, preserving the natural structural integrity of the page. Though the Bob example is simple, this type can get rather complex, sometimes requiring special punctuation to preserve readability. The more complicated a list gets, the more visual contrast it requires.
Some lists need complete structural separation. Perhaps this is due to significance, sequence, or merely a desire for emphasis. To break a list from its surrounding text, a couple of changes should be made:
- Put each item on its own line.
- Mark items with distinguishing symbols.
- Place items based on importance or sequence if applicable.
Voilà, we have a vertical list. This is that second clade, and it is one with a few variations. This example is a bulleted list, which is a vertical type that uses dots to mark its elements. A bulleted list is an unordered list; thus, the positioning of items within the list is of no importance. If the items need to follow a specific order, make an ordered list following this format:
- Determine the sequence of items.
- Put numbers before each line.
- Add periods after the numbers.
If you want to reference items later, use letters instead, prefacing later citations with parentheticals referencing the letter of the item being mentioned.
There is another, less common alternative to the bullet. This is the dingbat, a name for any quirky little symbol that is used to decoratively emphasize an item. Common dingbats include:
☞ The Pointer
➩ The Arrow
❂ The Star
Many more symbols can be found in word processing applications like Microsoft Word. Just look for the wingding font.
Whether you are looking to establish sequential hierarchy or just looking to use something a little more decorative than a simple bullet, there are options for you. The task is choosing which type is best for your purposes. Now, let’s tackle some more esoteric qualities of list writing.
Ultimately, the grammar of list writing isn’t too complicated. The most important thing to remember about punctuating lists is consistency. Like with parallel structure, stick to your rules. Run-in lists obey the basic grammatical rules of everyday writing. In other words, they are punctuated like normal sentences.
Vertical lists demonstrate more variability. For bulleted lists, capitalization is optional unless the items are complete sentences. The same applies for end punctuation, such as periods. Elements in ordered lists should be capitalized, but as with their unordered counterparts, end punctuation depends on whether each item is a complete thought.
The “complete sentence” trope is a common theme. Colons should be used to introduce lists if the introduction is a complete thought. This is true for both the run-in and vertical types of lists. There is an exception, however. The Associated Press, or AP, style apparently requires colons and periods for both complete and incomplete introductions. It has been noted that such an extensive take on punctuation reduces readability.
Finally, let’s say a few words about the use of semicolons. In most basic lists, writers should use commas to separate items from each other. There are times, however, when individual items in a list become so complex that they require commas, which confuses readers if a comma is also used to separate thoughts. This is where the semicolon comes into play. Consider the example below:
“Walter excelled in many hobbies, such as physical activities like biking, swimming, or running; mastery of instruments, including the drums, guitar, and violin; and culinary pursuits involving grilling, roasting, or sautéing.”
Here, semicolons are used in lieu of commas to make elements of a list more easily distinguishable. Of course, the example was a run-in list, but the semicolon is used in both run-in and vertical variants.
Those are the rules. Chances are, you already possess the knowledge needed to punctuate a list, but, as with anything, practice makes perfect.
In a Nutshell
Now that we’ve presented this guide to writing lists, it’s time to take aim at your own copy. Just remember there is a limit to the items a list should hold, and the components should be on the same page. Context is essential, as is consistency. Run-in lists are simpler to write, but vertical lists provide more contrast, as well as the potential for order, later reference, or decoration. Grammar is always tricky, but try asking which elements are complete thoughts, and be careful with your commas/semicolons.
Here are some references if you would like to read more about bullet-proofing your writing:
If everything on a page of content is condensed into short bullets, reading comprehension can be compromised.