When I raise the topic of dot points and bulleted lists in my writing workshops, people have loads of questions, such as:
how to punctuate bulleted lists
when to use numbers versus bullets
how long any one list item can or should be
whether there are rules about minimum and maximum numbers
This bullet confusion isn’t surprising. For some time, it has been fashionable to bust into bullets in our business emails, letters, reports, submissions, and articles. It’s a development I applaud most of the time, because these and other vertical lists help to guide our readers and offer visual relief from long patches of prose. But as we all know, sometimes bullets can be mishandled, or overused. It’s an easy thing to do in an arena where there are no hard and fast rules. So with no further ado, I offer some basic guidelines for using lists in your business writing.
Guidelines for vertical lists
There are no hard and fast rules for styling vertical lists. The key thing is to decide on a style that suits your document and your audience, and stick to it. Here are my style guidelines preferences:
1. Decide whether you need a vertical list. Short, simple lists like the one in the next sentence are better run in to the text. But if a list needs visual prominence, is relatively long, or contains subdivided items, a vertical list is the way to go.
2. Decide what kind of vertical list is best. Use bullets when the order of the items doesn’t matter, as with the list I used above. Use numbers when the order of the list does matter, as with this list. Where the order may not matter but you will be referring back to bulleted items later, use letters (a., b., c.) to help guide your reader and to avoid making inelegant references to “the seventh dot point on page 5”.
3. Apply punctuation.Start by putting a colon at the end of the text leading into the vertical list. Now you are into the tricky business of punctuating the items:
If the lead-in sentence is complete by itself or ends with words like “such as”, or “including,”, the list requires no punctuation (see the bulleted list above) unless each item forms a complete sentence or series of sentences (as with this list).
If you need the list items to complete the sentence, use commas to separate the items and a full stop at the end. If one or more of the items contains internal punctuation like a comma, use semi-colons instead.
4. Make sure the items are parallel. The items in a vertical list must be parallel, both in their wording (all beginning with the same type of word), and their structure (all being partial sentences, or all complete). The bulleted list above contains partial sentences, with each item beginning with a question word. This list contains complete sentences, and the opening sentence of each item begins with an imperative verb. If they are not parallel, it’s time for some re-crafting.
5. Check for readability. Vertical lists are meant to helpful and make life easier for your reader. Each list should have no fewer than two items, and no more than five. If there are more than five and the items are very short, put them into two columns. If there are more than five items, carefully consider how helpful this list really is for your reader. The hard truth is that a long list of bulleted items may mean that you have not taken the time to: (i) organize your thoughts into carefully crafted paragraphs and with the occasional list; or (ii) refine the items down to a manageable number.
If you want to explore this topic further, I recommend these sources.
The only comprehensive guide to punctuating and formatting lists I know of is the Chicago Manual of Style (6.121-6.126). Readers wanting to supplement with a CanCon authority should consult The Canadian Style (7.65-7.70). Australians, see Pam Peters’ entries on “lists” and “bullet points” in TheCambridge Guide to Australian Usage.
I also recommend two short recent articles available online:
Frances Peck, “Getting to the point with bullets” (July 2011)