In business writing, a well-formed list itemizes details for readers—but a poorly formed list makes information hard to access.
When should I use a list?
Use a list to make details accessible, such as the following:
- Steps in a process
- Parts of a plan
- Examples of a situation
- Reasons for a decision
The list above uses bullets because the information doesn’t have a specific rank or sequence. For sequential information, use numbers or letters. Also, notice that the list uses parallel structure.
What is parallel structure?
Parallel structure means that each list item has the same grammatical form: a list of nouns, a list of verbs, a list of prepositional phrases, a list of sentences.
The “Don’t Say” example includes a noun phrase, a verb phrase, and a question. The list is not parallel and is therefore confusing. The “Do Say” example includes three noun phrases.
When giving instructions, start each list item with a command verb.
How should I introduce a list?
Start with a lead-in line that summarizes the list’s contents. The lead-in should be a complete sentence followed by a colon.
Keep your lead-in line specific and focused. Avoid “catch-all” intro lines.
Can I write a lead-in that “reads in” to the list?
Yes, but such a list is harder to construct and more difficult to read. It’s basically one long sentence, requiring the reader to go all the way through.
To close up the office, make sure to
- do an “all call,”
- turn off coffee makers,
- lock the back and side doors,
- enter the alarm code,
- exit within 15 seconds, and
- lock the front door.
Note that the list is capitalized and punctuated like a complete sentence, with a period at the end.
This information, however, would be easier to access in a list with a full-sentence intro.
Follow these steps to close up the office:
- Do an “all call.”
- Turn off coffee makers.
- Lock the back and side doors.
- Enter the alarm code.
- Exit within 15 seconds.
- Lock the front door.
Now the reader can walk step-by-step through the procedure, following six separate command sentences rather than a single long one. Since these items are complete sentences, they start with capital letters and end with periods.
When should I avoid lists?
Lists work well for discrete, parallel bits of information. When you need to narrate an event or explain a situation or argue for a given solution, write a regular paragraph. It can relate ideas in more nuanced ways.
Also avoid long lists such as “Remember these 75 tax tips.” No one can remember 75 of anything, and when a list is that long, you haven’t effectively organized your ideas for readers.