The secret to using bullet points effectively

Bullet Points

I wasn’t sure my obsession with bullet points was something worth sharing. Maybe I’m still not…

Then to my surprise, a new blog popped up in my newsfeed from ProBlogger, “How to Make Your List Items and Bullet Points Super Smooth”. I couldn’t help myself. I had to read it. And I was relieved to find it’s not only me that loses sleep over the incorrect use of bullet points!

While ProBlogger’s article focused on the use of Parallelism in bullet points (more about that later), I first want to take a step back and think about the correct way to structure bullets within text. Let’s get the grammar right before we explore how to use bullet points effectively.

Back to school

The words “school” and “grammar” usually conjure up terrible memories of ridiculous rules that we all have to learn…followed by then learning the reasons why the English language breaks every rule we’ve just spent days trying to remember.

But when understanding how to avoid making mistakes with bullet points, it’s important to delve just a little into the basics of English grammar. Because once you understand WHY something is incorrect, it’s so much easier to identify any errors and fix them.

Two simple rules for success

If you remember nothing else, then please just remember the following two rules.

  1. Sentence structure
  2. Punctuation and capitalisation

1. Sentence structure

When you write a list of bullet points everything in the list should agree. What does this mean? Well, think about how you would write a sentence that contained your to-do list for example.

I have so much to do today. I need to go to the gym, write my latest blog article and meet my friends for dinner.

Each thing you’ve listed starts with a verb – it’s an action you need to take. Go. Write. Meet.

The same structure should apply if you turned this into a bulleted list. And it’s easy to spot when it goes wrong.

I have so much to do today. I need to:

  • gym class
  • latest blog article
  • dinner with friends

Which if you turned into a full sentence would read as follows.

I have so much to do today. I need to gym class, latest blog article and dinner with friends.
It doesn’t really flow or make much sense does it?

Rule 1: Try writing your list of bullets as a whole sentence. If it doesn’t flow, take a look at how you’ve started each item in the list and make it consistent, ie choose whether to use a verb, a noun or an adjective etc.

2. Punctuation and capitalisation

Once you’ve got your sentence structure right, you can then turn your attention to the punctuation, namely full stops and colons. Which one you use will be determined by how you end the preceding sentence.

Option 1 – using a colon

A colon is used where the bullet points form part of the overall sentence.

Bullet points that follow a colon should all start with lower case letters. Ideally there should be no punctuation, except for the last bullet point which should end with a full stop to indicate this is the end of the sentence.

Here’s an example of how it works.

You may find that you:

  • need a career change
  • have passion for writing
  • like the idea of being a copywriter.

If you write this without the bullet points it would read like this.

You may find that you need a career change, have passion for writing and like the idea of being a copywriter.

Option 2 – using a full stop

A full stop is used where the bullet points each act as a standalone sentence.

Bullet points that follow a full stop, should start with a capital letter and end with a full stop.

There are several ways for you to capture information from a client.

  • Send the client a questionnaire and ask them to fill it in.
  • Organise a phone call at a mutually convenient time.
  • Meet face-to-face and build personal rapport over coffee.

There’s always a but…

In the case of a short list, punctuation is not necessarily required. It is often removed for visual simplicity, particularly online where it makes reading much easier.

Square Peg Communications can assist you in the following areas.

  • Content creation
  • Strategic planning
  • Copy editing

Rule 2: once you’ve decided which type of list to use, write the introductory text to match using either a colon or full stop.

Back to Parallelism

Now back to the reason I first started writing this article. While using the correct grammar helps ensure readers understand your content, how can bullet points make your content more enticing and compelling?

Whenever you create a list of bullet points, think about making them all match. This is the basis of Parallelism.

I talked earlier about the importance of making sure they all begin with the same type of word – a verb, a noun, an adjective etc. It can also mean ending them all in the same way, for example using a question mark. Or, ensure the length of each bullet point is similar to improve the flow.

Here are a few more examples of Parallelism in action.

When you’re drafting content, you need to do the following.

  • Research the chosen topic
  • Write a couple of drafts
  • Talk regularly with the client

Note how each bullet point starts with a verb and is of similar length.

There are several things you should ask the client.

  • What is the deadline?
  • Is there a word count?
  • Who is the audience?

Each bullet point is clearly a question and follows on from the preceding sentence.

If you find bullet points challenging, you’re not alone. But if you write content for websites or email, then breaking up text using bullet points can transform your content, so it’s worth spending some time getting them right.

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