10 Tips For Creating Powerful Lists

Posted: April 3, 2014 in Words and communications, Writing advice
Tags: , , , ,

Lists as a form of written communication can help you get your information across more clearly. The eye loves a list. Readers love a list. Lists can be used with material that’s general or specific, short or long, narrative or outlined. They shorten, summarize, and clarify virtually any material.

Here are 10 tips for creating powerful lists:

Tip #1: Order lists for quick scanning by the eye

Most people sequence numbered or bulleted lists in order of importance. The first is usually the most important and the last the least importance. The problem is that the eye doesn’t see that way.

People reading on-screen tend to skim, scan and skip… often right past the middle bullets in a list! But they generally do take in the last point. Reorder your bullets to match the same order that readers unconsciously assign them:

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

Tip #2: Start your list as you would an outline, then fill in

Unless your tips are a few words in length, start with the points of the list, order them, then fill in the information for each. That way you can see how the list will flow, if the order is correct, and really decide how much information you wish to put under each point

Tip #3: Write every item in parallel

Lists are most effective when every item is expressed in the same form. This is called parallel construction. If you start with a verb make sure all items in the list begin with a verb. Parallelism creates a rhythm and it makes the items in a list sound connected. This applies to grammar, length, and style of each item. So match each item as closely as possible.

Tip #4: Use an alternate order when it makes sense

Sometimes the default ‘most to least important’ isn’t the best way to organize your list. Here are some other methods and when to use them.

Ordering method Use for
Alphabetical Items of equal importance,
such as a list of clients
Chronological: oldest to newest A timeline or history
Familiarity: most to least familiar To introduce something familiar
Geographical: closest to furthest A range of places, a journey
Process: first to last A step-by-step process,
a flow of data
Size: biggest to smallest
or smallest to biggest
A range of sizes

Tip #5: Avoid using the same word or letter to start each item

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.

Tip #6: Keep each item as short as possible

Eliminate the articles (a, an, the). Start with a verb. Use phrases or key words only. Use short sentences. You can do things in a list you wouldn’t normally do in regular writing.

Tip #7: If each item must be a paragraph bold the first sentence

That way the eye will go to all the bolded lines first as it scans the list. Then it can choose to read more.

Tip #8: Use proper grammar

You want short sentences that grab the reader’s eye but this is not texting or tweeting!

Tip #9: Be consistent

If you use dashes don’t switch to colons. If you end with a period be sure all items do. Also keep your formatting such as indenting and subbullets the same.

Tip #10: Make sure the formatting is easy to read

Mark each item with a number, letter or symbol. However, be aware that numbers and letters might also indicate a sequence or importance to a reader. When you have a group of related items that are nonsequential, use symbols (dingbats) such as bullet points.

Indent generously because the key to a list is that it’s easy to read due to the fact that it has more white space around it than a standard sentence or paragraph.

Whether you are putting together a Powerpoint presentation (the grand daddy of all lists) or writing a set of user instructions, or crafting an e-mail that you hope will motivate the reader to take some kind of action, follow these 10 tips and your lists will make you a winner.

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