Copyright 2020 Melanie Spiller. All rights reserved.
Tables, Numbered Lists, and Bullets
MelanieSpiller and Coloratura Consulting
There are several ways to present piles of information besides a straightforward narrative. Or perhaps you just need to break up several pages of otherwise uninterrupted text because readers grow weary when the narrative doesn’t offer a visual change. Let’s look at the options.
Tables are best used when you have bulk items to present, like a list of methods or features and their explanations or limitations. Tables are also great when you compare similar things, because you can lay out your concepts in a linear fashion. Tables should have a clear organization principle (like alphabetical, time and space, or chronological). If you find that the narrative part of the table (the explanation) is getting a little long, and you have only two columns (one for the term and one for its definition), you might consider a bulleted list instead. Depending on your publishing medium, tables are sometimes hard to lay out, and often are limited to a certain number of columns or characters.
Numbered lists are best reserved for steps, where the reader works through a project. Try to keep the number of steps under ten. If you have more than ten steps, your audience might find the list intimidating. If readers need to take a break, starting a 35-step list again might be just daunting enough that they won’t start working through the list in the first place. Try not to interrupt the steps with explanatory narrative. If you really must, keep it very short. If you need to pause to explain, it’s a good reason to end the list. Start a new numbered list on the other side of the explanation.Be sure that your steps all take the same sentence form: an action word (verb) and then the predicate, “command” language starting with a verb, or complete sentences. Like this:1.Open the file called Lists.2.Navigate to the Essays document.Or1.Open Lists.2.Navigate to Essays.Or1.You can open the file called Lists.2.Then use your mouse to navigate to the Essays document.As it happens, I’ve used complete sentences in all three examples (you only put a period after complete sentences, of course). Complete sentences are a good idea in numbered lists, because complete sentences are typically clearer than fragments. If the reader is interrupted, complete sentences are easier to pick up in the middle than fragments.
Bulleted lists are the writer’s workhorses. You can use them to list features, to provide definitions, to summarize your document, to list requirements, and to provide emphasis or clarity for points that are buried in narrative. You can also use bullets to visually break up lengthy text and make it seem less impenetrable.You can nest information in bulleted lists. The form the bullets take in each of the nested levels isn’t important, although I notice that Microsoft Word provides a variety at each level. Consider whether the changed bullet is helpful or whether it adds confusion before defaulting to a variety.Definitions in bulleted lists should be offered with a colon—not em dashes—separating the definition from the term. (You could also make such a list in the same form but without the detail of the bullets, perhaps using bold to identify the defined word.)
All List Types
Make sure the language in lists is parallel, or your reader will get confused about the point of the list. It doesn’t much matter whether you use complete sentences or not (it depends on whether you have an introductory phrase), but the elements should all take the same form.This is bad:Makes two holes in the paperThe stapler doesn’t cost much.Automatically bends the legs of the staplesThis is better:Makes two holes in the paperBends the legs of the staples automaticallyStores unused staples in the handlePart of the problem with the first example was that the verbs weren’t in the same place for each phrase. Another problem was that the element topics weren’t parallel. Two were about how the stapler functions and the other (the second) wasn’t.If you have an introduction (“here are the features:”) make sure that the items in your list are each grammatically part of the introduction phrase. It’s not a good idea to try to continue the introductory phrase after the list, although you might occasionally need a conjunction to link the lists (as I did in the Numbered List examples). Now go. Make lists.