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Are we too reliant on bullet points?

Posted on March 24, 2021

 

When writing an article that contains a lot of information the reader needs to digest, it can be tempting to condense this into bullet-pointed lists, but does this help, or is it just a lazy way of writing?

The answer depends on the type of article and whether the points really need to be understood one by one.

I sometimes see writers use bullet points in a completely unnecessary way. For example, I recently read a feature article about a tribute band, where the writer had deemed it necessary to list some of the acts the band covered as below:

• Queen
• Prince
• Jimi Hendrix
• Pink Floyd
• David Bowie
• Led Zeppelin
• AC/DC
• Metallica

This only served to break up the paragraph and upset the flow of the writing. The reader doesn’t need to take in each of these acts individually. An event promoter may want to do it so that the name jumps out at fans of these musicians, but for a news or feature article, it’s more conventional to list the acts as below:

“Acts covered by the band include Queen, Prince, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC and Metallica.”

The main purpose of bullet points is to present punchy nuggets of information or advice in a concise and easy-to-follow way. In these times of COVID-19 and regular instructions, perhaps we’ve all got a little too used to short commands in triplets, like “Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives” and the even more direct “Hands. Face. Space.”

One other possible use for bullet points is if they help make a list clearer. For example, with the above list of musical acts, what if we include one with commas in its name, like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young or Peter, Paul and Mary? This could cause confusion if dropped into a list separated by commas.

There are two ways around this – one is to use bullet points, but another is to use semi-colons where commas would normally be, such as:

“Acts covered by the band include Queen; Prince; Jimi Hendrix; Pink Floyd; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; David Bowie; Led Zeppelin; AC/DC and Metallica.”

That doesn’t look too bad, and it might also be used to separate a list of towns in the US, where the convention is to name the town followed by a comma and then the state, such as “Houston, Texas” and “Los Angeles, California”. If your list becomes too convoluted though, it may be time to consider bullet points, or possibly just making it shorter.

These are all matters we bear in mind at Engage Web when supplying content to our clients. For high-quality written articles designed to engage and inform, speak to us today.

John Murray
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