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5 tips on writing better bullets

Most white paper writers use bulleted lists to break up long chunks of text.

But are your lists as effective as they could be?

Here are five tips to help make every bullet count.

Better bullets tip #1: Order bullets for quick scanning

“Copywriters write numbered or bulleted lists in order of importance. The first is usually the most important, and the last the least important,” says Anne Holland.

But based on years of research in eye tracking and readability at MarketingSherpa, she says, “The eye doesn’t see that way.”

People reading on-screen skim, scan and skip… often right past the middle bullets in a list!

But they generally take in the very last point.

Anne’s recommendation is to reorder your bullets in the same order readers unconsciously assign, like so:

  • Most important point
  • Second most important point
  • Less important point (may be skipped)
  • Less important point (may be skipped)
  • Third most important point

The bottom line: If you have more than three items in a list, tuck the weakest in the middle, not at the end.

Better bullets tip #2: Write every bullet in parallel

Bullets are most effective when every item is expressed in the same form. This is called parallel construction.

From the Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications, page 109, “Parallelism ensures that elements of sentences that are similar in purpose are also similar in structure.”

For example, consider this short list:

  • Always do first things first.
  • It’s important to do the second thing after the first.
  • Last things should be left until last.

Although all the information is there, it’s given in a disorganized way that makes a reader work hard to get at the content.

Here is a better way to format this list in parallel:

  • First, do the first thing.
  • Next, do the second thing.
  • Finally, do the last thing.

See how the parallel version is so much faster and easier to read?

Better bullets tip #3: Use an alternate order when it makes sense

Sometimes the default “most to least important” isn’t actually the best way to organize your list.

Here are some other methods and when to use them.

 

Ordering method Use for
Alphabetical  Equally important items, like a list of clients or contributors
Chronological:
oldest to newest
(or vice versa)
A timeline or history
Familiarity:
most to least familiar
To introduce something unfamiliar
Geographical:
closest to furthest
(or vice versa)
A range of places,
a journey
Process:
first to last
A step-by-step process,
a flow of data
Size:
biggest to smallest
(or vice versa)
A range of sizes

Better bullets tip #4: Avoid the Russian Novel Syndrome

Did you ever read a story where everyone’s name starts with the same letter?

In War and Peace, there are people with family names Karagina, Karataev, Kaysarov, Kochubey, Komarov, Kondratyevna, Konovnitsyn, Kozlovsky, and on and on. This is the dreaded Russian Novel Syndrome.

Don’t get me started on the names in Lord of the Rings?!

Try to avoid that in your bulleted lists. Make sure every item starts with a different word and a different letter.

Otherwise, the words can all blur together in the eyes of a distracted reader.

Better bullets tip #5: Rewrite bullets, just like text

Your first shot at a list of bullets may not be perfect.

I know mine aren’t. Even for this short article, I rearranged the order of the bullets and added two more before I was finished.

So don’t be afraid to rewrite and tweak your bullets carefully.

It’s worth the effort, since even the busiest readers are likely to take in few points in a list of bullets.

 


Do you have any tips to share about using bullets? Please leave your comments below.


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About Gordon Graham

Worked on 300+ white papers for clients from Silicon Valley to Switzerland, on everything from choosing enterprise software to designing virtual worlds for kids, for clients from tiny startups to 3M, Google, and Verizon. Wrote White Papers for Dummies which earned 50+ 5-star ratings on Amazon. Won 16 awards from the Society for Technical Communication. And named AWAI 2019 Copywriter of the Year.

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1 Comment

  1. Helena Williamson on December 16, 2020 at 4:36 pm

    Great to read this. We often use bullet points in our writing. Your instruction will definitely help us to write it more effectively. Thanks for sharing this with us.

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