Get Listed: A No Nonsense Guide to Writing Lists

Are You Using Bulleted and Numbered Lists Correctly?

Bulleted and numbered lists are everywhere and can be especially useful in business writing. And there are good reasons to use them:

  • They break up dense text and make it more readable.
  • They allow you to emphasize key words and phrases.
  • They help you to clearly describe a process.

In our editing work, we see a fair amount of confusion about how and when to use bullets or numbers, so here’s the quick and dirty on what you need to know when you want to use lists.

Only Use Bullets or Numbers When You Have Two or More Items

We see the use of one-item lists more than you might think, especially when it comes to detailing a process. But a simple rule is that if you don’t have a step 2, you don’t need a step 1. (This can be a little tricky if you have sub-steps, but we’ll get into process-writing tips in another post.) The same goes for bullets. Now I get that some of you like to use a single bullet point to set information apart from a block of text, and I’m willing to bend to that logic in certain circumstances. But in general, if you only have a single bullet item, consider setting it off as a note, like this:

Note: Avoid using single bullets.

Bullets or Numbers?

I’m always surprised to learn that a writer doesn’t know when to use either bullets or numbers (what, you didn’t all go to technical writing school?!). So here are the rules of thumb:

Numbered list: order is important. This is a must when detailing a process or procedure. We see a lot of bulleted lists used when a numbered list is the correct choice. Don’t let the order on the page or screen be the only indicator of the order of steps; be clear about it and number the steps in the order they should be completed.

You can also use numbered lists to rank the importance of the items in the list. For example, you could use a numbered list to rank the goals for a project.

Bulleted list: order is not important. So, for example, you would use bullets to list the benefits of a program or the items that should be included in emergency preparedness kit. If you can completely jumble your list items and the information is still accurate, bullets are the way to go.

Easy, Right?

Remember:

  • Use a list when you have two or more items.
  • Use numbers when order is important.
  • Use bullets when order is not important.

Happy listing!


About the author:

Tom Formaro is Senior Editor/Writer at Blu Pagoda LLC, a communications, content and marketing company. He has extensive editing and writing experience, with more than 20 years in professional communications with companies such as CE Software, International Network Services, Lucent Technologies, Cisco Systems, and Wells Fargo. Tom truly loves language and takes a no-excuses approach to getting the job done right. He’s the author of two books—the novel The Broken Heart Diet, and the children’s book, Alfonso, the Christmas Pumpkin—as well as numerous short stories. Tom has also taught small group writing workshops for aspiring storytellers. When not writing, Tom is usually busy being a dad or enjoying the rare opportunity to play drums.