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Use lists

Lists highlight a series of steps, requirements, or pieces of information in a visually clear way. Use lists to help your user focus on important material.

Lists are useful because they:

  • Highlight levels of importance
  • Help the reader understand the order in which things happen
  • Help readers skim and scan
  • Make it easy to identify all steps in a process
  • Add white space for easy reading
  • Are an ideal way to present items, conditions, and exceptions

Example

  • Before

    Each completed well drilling application must contain a detailed statement including the following information: the depth of the well, the casing and cementing program, the circulation media (mud, air, foam, etc.), the expected depth and thickness of fresh water zones, and well site layout and design.

  • After

    With your application for a drilling permit, provide the following information:

    • Depth of the well
    • Casing and cementing program
    • Circulation media (mud, air, form, etc)
    • Expected depth and thickness of fresh water zones
    • Well site layout and design

Outline steps in a process

Lists are also helpful in clarifying the chronological order of steps in a process. When you’re outlining steps in a process, consider numbering the individual list items.

Example

When a foreign student presents a completed Form I-20:

  1. Enter the student’s admission number from Form 94.
  2. Endorse all copies of the form.
  3. Return a copy to the student.
  4. Send a copy to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Focus on clarity and readability

You can overuse lists. Remember to use them to highlight important information, not to overemphasize trivial matters.

If you use bullets, use solid round or square ones. Bullets are not the place to be overly creative. Large creative bullets with strange shapes tend to distract the reader and may not display properly on all devices.

Your lists will be easier to read if you:

  • Always use a lead-in sentence to explain your lists
  • Indent your lead-in sentence from the left margin
  • Use left justification only – never center justification

Use no more than two or three levels

Readers get lost when you use more than two or three levels in a document. If you find you need more levels, consider sub-dividing your top level into more parts.

Include a lead-in sentence

Lead-in sentences help explain your lists.

  • Before

    Classroom supplies

    • A tablet
    • A pen or pencil
    • The paperwork you sent us when you first applied for class
  • After

    Classroom supplies

    When you come to class, you should bring the following:

    • A tablet
    • A pen or pencil
    • The paperwork you sent us when you first applied for class

Use parallel construction

Make sure each of the bullets in a list can make a complete sentence if combined with the lead-in sentence. The following example is a list that is not parallel.

You must submit:

  • Your application
  • Recommendation letter
  • Mail it express mail

“Mail it express mail” does not work with the rest of the list. The other items are nouns, but this is a verb. It isn’t something to submit. It’s a separate part of the instructions.

Sources

  • Charrow, Veda R., Erhardt, Myra K. and Charrow, Robert P., Clear & Effective Legal Writing, 4th edition, 2007, Aspen Publishers, New York, NY, pp. 181-182.
  • Garner, Bryan A., Legal Writing in Plain English, 2001, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 100, 125.
  • Murawski, Thomas A., Writing Readable Regulations, 1999, Carolina Academic Press Durham, NC, pp. 25, 81-84.
  • Securities and Exchange Commission, Plain English Handbook, 1998, Washington, DC, p. 34.