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Bullet points are a popular tool when writing e-mails, memos, and letters. Business writers know they draw attention to important information. Readers like bullet points because they are visually appealing and make it easy to quickly find pertinent information.
The Difference between Bullets and Numbers
Choose your identification marks carefully. Business writers use numbers (1, 2, 3) or letters (a, b, c) to indicate sequence or importance. Use them only when you want to indicate chronology or importance. If you have a group of related items that are not sequential, use neutral or egalitarian symbols such as bullet points, checkmarks, or other computer symbols. The same rule applies if all the listed items are equal in importance.
Many writers use numbers before bullets when they should use a graphic instead. The main difference between graphics and numbers is what they signify. Numbers are used to signify two things: sequence or priority. If you use numbers with your list of items, you are saying, "My first item is the most important, my second item is the next most important, and my third item is less important than my second."
On the other hand, when you use graphic symbols (i.e., the darkened circle, the diamond, the check mark, the open box), you are telling your reader that all of the bulleted items are of equal value or importance. Think of the graphics you use as being egalitarian marks signifying that all items are equally important.
The following example is a list of bulleted items with graphic symbols. What do the symbols signify?
A "honey-do" list:
The next example is a list of bulleted items using numbers. What do the numbers signify?
We must do the following before we can sell our house:
If you answered, "The first thing the homeowner must do is install new gutters, then paint the kitchen, then interview at least three realtors, then choose a realtor, and then decide on the listing price," you are right again. In this case, sequence is very important. By using numbers, you are telling your reader that the actions should follow a specific chronological order.
Creating Parallel Items in a List
Your bullets will be easier to read and understand if you put them in parallel form. Parallel form means that all items listed in a series begin with the same part of speech, are approximately the same length, and are given a similar format. It does not matter which grammatical construction you use in listing as long as you are consistent. Action verbs are a good way to begin items in a list. The following example shows bulleted items that begin with an action verb and are about the same length.
The following tips may help you cut expenses on your next trip to New York City:
Note that there are no periods or commas after any of the bullet points. Unless the bullet points are complete sentences, they do not have end punctuation. Do not mix clauses and sentences when creating bullet points. Use one or the other.
Bullet points are great for calling your reader's attention to specific information. As you use bullets in your memos, letters, reports, and other work documents, keep the following tips in mind:
Remember: use bulleted lists sparingly. No one wants to read a document that has more bullets than narrative. Bullets are like spice; use them judiciously rather than indiscriminately.
Catherine S. Hibbard is a nationally recognized expert in business and technical writing. Her company, Cypress Media Group ( www.cypressmedia.net ), is an Atlanta-based advertising, public relations, and training firm that provides training and consulting primarily related to business and technical writing, presentation skills, and media relations. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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