Lost in lists?

A list can de-waffle your text by stripping it down to the basic points. At the very least, lists can inject life, drawing the eye into passages that otherwise would look daunting. They’re also, of course, useful as a preparatory tool for working out the structure of an essay.

Lists can be planned in from the start, and they can be retrofitted. But you can’t just chop copy into chunks, add numbers/letters/bullets/dashes, and expect seamless fluency and comprehension. Lists must obey rules! Here are some basic pointers on how to line up your ducks.

(By the way, the indents below are all over the place. I struggled to sort them out, but eventually gave up. You’ll just have to live with the mess.)

 

  1. All entries within a list should follow a common construction. For example:

Here’s what we can offer you:

    • A transparent process.
    • A single point of contact.
    • Monthly feedback.
    • Great discounts on bulk orders.

Each of the four entries is essentially the same: a noun group. (In effect, each entry is the object of the sentence – ‘We can offer you a transparent process,’ ‘We can offer you a single point of contact,’ and so on.) This structural uniformity makes the list easy to read.

An alternative approach would be to use complete sentences:

Why do business with us?

    • We use a transparent process.
    • You liaise with a single point of contact.
    • We provide monthly feedback.
    • You enjoy great discounts on bulk orders.

Again, there’s consistency here.

 

  1. We could put some flesh on our list by qualifying every entry with an explanation:

Here’s what we can offer you:

    • A transparent process. We disclose all of our financial terms before you sign the contract, and we supply a full breakdown of every invoice.
    • A single point of contact. When you sign up, we appoint a project manager who will liaise with you through to completion.
    • Monthly feedback. We report at month’s end with a progress chart and a running budget update.
    • Great discounts on bulk orders. We give a rising scale of discounts on purchases of 10, 50 and 100 units.

Each entry has now become two-tiered, but, again, it still has a uniform structure and a systemic logic, so it remains easy to comprehend.

3. For a more fluid approach, you could create a list from a single expanded sentence:

We offer

    • a transparent process,
    • a single point of contact,
    • monthly feedback, and
    • great discounts on bulk orders.

Again . . . this works because each item in the list is grammatically similar.

 

  1. Numbers in lists help you place things in a logical sequence. This may seem painfully obvious, but some people will insist on using numbers to list random stuff that deserves nothing more than bullets. (Eat lead, you pesky list!)

Here is a list that deserves its numbers:

To fry an egg:

    1. Heat a frypan and add a slab of butter.
    2. Once the butter has gone quiet, crack an egg in.
    3. Fry till crispy-edged, and gently flip (if you like eggs over easy).

 

With subdivided lists, use common sense when choosing numbers, letters, and so on. Let’s run the egg instructions through a kitchen control-freak:

To fry an egg:

    1. Prepare the frypan.
      i) Place it over a medium-high heat.
      ii) Add a little dob of butter.
      iii) Wait till the butter has stopped sizzling before going further.
    2. Add the egg.
      i) Crack the egg on the pan rim.
      ii) Hold it low when opening, to avoid breaking the yolk.
    3. . . . etc., etc.

Lists can be subdivided almost indefinitely, so long as you stick to your chosen numbering system.

 

In summary, lists that are internally consistent will express their contents clearly.

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