Do’s and Don’ts of Lists


—Bite-sized advice for better business writing—

Do’s and Don’ts of Lists

“For a list of all the ways technology has failed to improve the quality of life, please press three.”

— Alice Kahn

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:

  1. Do an “all call.”
  2. Turn off coffee makers.
  3. Lock the back and side doors.
  4. Enter the alarm code.
  5. Exit within 15 seconds.
  6. 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.


Play the Editor!

The following list has numerous problems. Rewrite it to improve the lead-in line, make items parallel, and fix punctuation and capitalization. (Use your imagination to provide any necessary details.)

Don Davis retirement party, June 23 at 4:00 p.m.:

  1. Reserve the Putnam Conference Room.
  2. decorations
  3. Order “Happy Retirement, Don!” cake.
  4. paper plates and plasticware
  5. Napkins
  6. Who should give a speech?
  7. invitations
  8. Retrospective slide show?

Get More Support

Check out the Write for Business Guide, Courses, and eTips for more ways to create effective lists.


Editor’s Recommendation

Don Davis’s retirement party is approaching on June 23 at 4:00 p.m. We need to complete the following tasks:

  1. Reserve the Putnam Conference Room from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m.
  2. Send out invitations to staff and family.
  3. Ask staff and family for pictures and stories about Don.
  4. Create a retrospective slideshow.
  5. Ask the president to speak about Don and present the cake.
  6. Buy decorations.
  7. Arrange for a team to hang decorations at 3:00 p.m. on June 23.
  8. Order “Happy Retirement, Don!” cake and arrange for pick up.
  9. Buy paper plates, plasticware, and napkins.

[The lead-in line is a complete sentence, the list items are reorganized to be sequential, each item in the list is a command sentence, the list is parallel, capitalization and punctuation are consistent, and details make the process clear for readers.]