Writing 101: Bullets Are For Lists

I’ve been reading documents here and there recently and have run up against something that seems to be confusing to some authors: when and how to use bullet point lists.

For those who are unaware, here’s the shocking rule of thumb for using bullet point lists: If you have a list of things, you can use bullet points (or numbers, as appropriate). If it’s just a paragraph of prose describing something, it’s not a bullet point list.

For example, say you’re describing the process by which you take out the trash. This is not a good bullet point list:

  • I go in the kitchen and pull out the garbage can.
  • Sometimes the garbage stinks a little because of the food in there.
  • Other times it doesn’t stink, but it’s OK because there’s air freshener in the room next door.
  • I might go get the air freshener, but not yet.
  • I pull the garbage bag out of the trash can and walk it outside. Then I stick it in the large trash can outside.
  • Now I might get the air freshener.

Again, that’s not a good bullet point list. It’s a series of sentences that, with some help, would make a prose paragraph describing the trash removal process. Bullet point items should be self-contained. They should generally be short and to the point - again, it’s a list, not a story in bullet form. That crap about the garbage stinking in the above list - what’s that doing there? Why is the thing written like a story? No, no, no. That’s just… painful.

A decent bullet list is more like this:

  • Go in kitchen.
  • Pull out garbage can.
  • Get bag out of garbage can.
  • Take bag outside and place in large can.
  • If necessary, spray air freshener in the kitchen.

Short, to the point. A list of self-contained thoughts.

Another use of bullets might be in denoting section breaks in short, self-contained text blocks. Like a question/answer thing:

  • Question: Where is the garbage can? Answer: In the kitchen.
  • Question: Where do I take the garbage bag? Answer: To the large can outside.

Here you see the individual thoughts outlined by the bullets, while slightly longer, are still fairly self-contained. I also added a little white space between each item to help that visual delineation of thoughts. I didn’t write an essay and throw a bullet in front of it. I didn’t take a story and make each sentence in the story into a bullet item.

It’s okay if you’d rather describe things in a prose paragraph or three. Bullets have their uses and maybe the thought isn’t conducive to the bullet treatment. That said, bullets don’t necessarily make your thoughts more intelligible. Use them where appropriate. When in doubt, maybe err on the side of not using bullets. I mean, if you don’t know if it’s a bullet list or not… it’s probably not.

Note: This is particularly applicable to the folks who think Excel is a word processor. It’s not. Just stop. Now. Seriously.