Make it easy to read: Why Lists Are Better Than Long Paragraphs in Written Communications
Imagine this scenario: You are sending your significant other an email, asking him to pick up a variety of things at the grocery store.
Hi honey –
On your way home today, would you please go to Safeway? Once you’re there, I’d like you to go to the personal care aisle and get toothpaste, chapstick, and band-aids. Then, while you’re at it, if you could go to the dairy section, please get milk and creamer. Before you leave, could you be so kind as to also pick up cereal, pancake mix, and syrup? That would be wonderful.
Thanks! See you tonight!
You’ve been polite, included appropriate greetings, etc. but is your request easy to read in paragraph form? When we think of things that need to be done (i.e.: picked up at the grocery store) we should be thinking in lists.
Why Use Lists?
Lists are a lot easier to read than paragraphs. Lists help both you and your reader by:
Separating key points, details or items of information
Focusing the reader’s attention on specific information
Serving as checklist – things that need to get done
Reducing the chance for grammar or punctuation errors
The Above Scenario, Revisited
In fact, when you present information in a list, you can often include even more, relevant data. So, for example, instead of sending the email above, you could send the following:
Hi honey –
On your way home today, would you please go to Safeway? We need:
Wintergreen, gel toothpaste,
1-gallon of 2% milk,
Vanilla coffee creamer,
Frosted flakes cereal,
Family sized package of blueberry pancake mix,
… Thanks! See you tonight!
You will agree that it’s easier to read as a list than as a paragraph and yet, has even more relevant details the receiver should know!
But remember that there are a handful of rules to follow in order to make your lists are correct:
Keep the lists short – ideally about one screen. If you find your lists are starting to get long or deep in detail, consider creating an attachment. Lists longer than seven items should be broken up into shorter lists.
Provide context. Don’t just send a colleague a random bullet list in an email. Provide one or two sentences by way of introduction that provides context for what the list is about. For example, “Thanks for chatting with me earlier today. As we discussed…” Or “Thanks for offering to cover my phone calls while I’m out this afternoon. I’m expecting callbacks from the following people…”
Maintain parallel structure. If your first word in a bullet is an ing-verb, then start each bullet with ing-verbs. If you start a bulleted action item with its due date, be sure to provide due dates in the same format for all of the bulleted items.
Use full-sentences, fragments or individual words. Your bulleted list doesn’t have to be made up of complete sentences. Use what’s appropriate: if full sentences are needed to make the list understandable, use them. If you can convey your list equally as well with just a few words, do that.
Make sure everything belongs on the list and that they are related. To use the above scenario, if you’ve created a list of grocery store items, but also want to ask your spouse to also pick up the dry cleaning, and drop off a package at UPS, don’t make these additional errands a bulleted item on the grocery list. Add them at the end of the email, separate from the bulleted list.
Don’t be shy about creating “mini-paragraphs” in the list. Sometimes a bulleted list (like this one) requires not just a list, but a line or two of explanation. The key phrase here is “a line or two.” Keep the additional detail brief. Remember you can always hyperlink to supporting information if need be.
Use white space. Granted, when a list is concise and short (ie: a list of 3-4 things each containing one or two words), I wouldn’t worry. But more than that, I would consider adding a blank line between bulleted items (again, like we have here.) White space makes it easy to visually “group” information and to scan.
Be consistent with capitalizations and punctuation. If your list consists of individual items or phrases, you don’t have to capitalize the first letter of each line. However, if you capitalize the first letter of one bulleted list item, then be consistent and follow that style throughout the rest of your list. The same is true of punctuation or bolding. If you use open-punctuation (no ending comma/period) for one, carry that style throughout your list. If your initial phrase is bolded, carry that formatting all the way through your list.
Well-formatted lists can help your readers grasp your message more quickly. Follow the guidelines above and you’ll reduce the chance of punctuation and grammar errors that are found in most paragraphs. Research shows that long paragraphs are hard to read: opt for a list instead!