Learn to Love Lists

Many of us love to write lists. Sometimes we use them whenever possible, whether they’re called for or not! Bulleted or numbered lists are called “vertical” lists because the items are on top of each other (instead of a “horizontal” list of items in a line with commas).

There are specific reasons to use vertical lists, and specific reasons to choose bullets or numbers.Lists

You should use a vertical list when you’re listing four or more items. That is, if you say, “We will install Pump A, Boiler B and Compressor C” (three items) then you don’t need a vertical list. However, if you need to say “We will install Pump A, Boiler B, Compressor C and Filter D” (four items), then you should use a vertical list instead.

But when should you use bullets and when should you use numbers? Bullets are better most of the time, such as for lists of equipment. You should avoid bulleted lists of more than ten items – your reader will have a hard time keeping so many chunks of information straight. Break these lists up into shorter ones instead.

You should use a numbered list when:

  • The items are sequential (as in the steps in a procedure).
  • The items vary in importance (as in the factors contributing to a problem).
  • The items need to be identified by number later (as in action items from meeting minutes).
  • You want to emphasize the total number of items (as in the ways you love learning about writing).

When should you not use a vertical list? You don’t need bullets or numbers if you simply have a lot of paragraphs in a section. Proper document organization means that your reader shouldn’t need this added structure.

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