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How to Write Bullet Lists: Do's and Don'ts

Do bulleted lists require the same punctuation? Should Unordered bulleted lists contain some type of symbol? When do I use a Bullet List or a Numbered List? Do they all need periods?

One of the biggest problems for business and technical writers is how to present information so that the reader can find the right information without having to dig it out.

Write to be Scanned

Using bullet lists and numbered lists is a very effective way to present complex information.

Instead of burying the key points inside large blocks of text, pull out the significant parts so readers can see with a glance what the most important parts are.

Remember, on the web most of us scan for nuggets of useful content. We don’t usually read word by word. We scan for information.

Once you grasp this, write your documents to reflect this.

Bullet v Numbered Lists

So, when you do use a Bullet list or a Number lists?

Knowing when to use, and when not to use, bullet, numbered or outline lists can prove difficult.

Before Word Processing came along, most publications displayed lists as either outline or numbered lists, but with Microsoft Word, you suddenly had bullet lists!

When to use Numbered lists

Use numbered lists when you're explaining instructions that need to be performed in sequence.

Numbered and unnumbered lists are most frequently used in academic and government publications. If numbers aren't essential use bullets, especially in business related documents.

When to capitalize the first letter in a bulleted item

In most cases, you can start each bulleted item with a capital letter. As we’re taught in school to capitalize only proper nouns and the first word of a complete sentence, it may feel wrong to capitalize these single words and phrases.

Today it is generally accepted that you can capitalize the first word in bullet lists

When to use Periods and Full Stops

Use periods (aka fullstops) after independent clauses, dependent clauses, or long phrases that are displayed on separate lines in a list.

For example:
The software has the following features:

  • Content Management features
  • Dynamic Binding capabilities
  • Autonomic programming add-ins.

Tip: Use periods after short phrases that are essential for the completeness of the statement introducing the list.

For example:

Microsoft Word has a number of features, including:

  • Indexing
  • Master Pages
  • HTML generation

You don’t have to use periods after short phrases or single words in a list if the introductory statement is grammatically complete.

For example:

The houses in this price range have attractive features, such as:

  • Large gardens
  • Spacious rooms
  • Central heating
  • Garage

Note: When one item contains a complete sentence, punctuate all bulleted items.

Capitalize the first words and put a period at the end of each item.

For example:

The US Army does not accept recruits who have engaged in:

  • Criminal Activities
  • Anti-Government demonstrations
  • Violent history. Please list all occasions when you were arrested or detained

Note: if you're creating a long document full of bulleted items, be consistent and decide at the start to end each item with, or without, a period. Within a grouping, always use all periods or no periods.

Avoid alternating throughout the document.

How NOT to do it

The managements suggests that you

  • Arrive on Friday;
  • Cook all the dishes, clean up, change your clothes; and
  • Go back home once you’ve feed us all.

If you want to use the semicolons (;), delete the bullets and create a sentence.

Final Tip

Bullets serve a similar role to Headlines. They highlight key points, are short, and are best with action verbs.

Bullets are not (necessarily) sentences.

If you want to write complete sentences, use a paragraph or numbered list.

More Microsoft Word Tutorials

How to Write Long Documents in Microsoft Word That Don't Crash

Control the size of Large Technical Documents

How to Write Business Documents That Don't Crash

How to Reduce The Size of MS Word Documents

Advanced Tips for Controlling MS Word Templates

How to Fix Table of Content Problems

How To Insert the Chapter Title in MS Word's Header or Footer




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