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Man writing bullet list on glass screen

The Power of the Bullet

Brian Austin
Brian Austin Communication

Bullets can help, yet you don't need any ammunition for this simple tip. Imagine that you're writing about a theme or point that has a variety of "angles", alternatives or options. Of course, you can list the various points in conventional paragraphs, however, sometimes you can help make your document more readable by splitting up paragraphs into smaller text blocks. So how can you best display the points you want to make most clearly?

Certainly use carefully constructed headings and sub-headings where appropriate to create important signposts. Plus, ensure that your document has a logical flow of information from start to finish. But for your text pointers, usually the best solution is to use bullet points and numbered lists.

There's nothing quite so enlightening for your reader - or when creating presentations, your viewer - than to spread each of your key points on a separate line with a contrasting, engaging marker inserted at the start of each key point line.

Furthermore, you can

  • Indent your bullet point lists from the rest of the text.
  • Thereby help further create at-a-glance visual pointers.
  • Easily illustrate hierarchy of importance with any previous and following bullet points.

Writing for Skimmers and Scanners

Such a layout also provides additional ease of use for skimmers and scanners - those folks who tend to read headings first and then only read what they consider to be relevant.

Bullet points combined with the surrounding white space also allow for better focus on individual points. These visual clues help make a logical sense and provide your reader with a much needed "time-space" to help absorb each of your points more easily.

Essentially, these realities define the power of the bullet point.

If we consider the careful use of simple colour contrast as secondary, even today, bullet points are one of the simplest, most effective, yet often under valued writing or communication aids.

Therefore, especially when you seek to put over a complex or multi-layered sentence, longer paragraph, consider breaking your sentence or paragraph into smaller chunks.

For example, consider using bullet points, like this:

  • Point 1.
  • Point 2.
  • Point 3.

Handy tip: while our example above uses the traditional pure "disc" bullet points, bullet points can use a wide range of symbols. Especially online, we can use small icons that, irrespective of displayed size, display with clean, sharp edges on mobile devices like smart phones, phablet and tablet computers, and notebook PCs.  

Also: considered use of bullet points helps your reader make better sense of, absorb, and understand your message more easily - especially when providing outlines and summaries.

Consider the following additional tips and guidelines:

  • The pace of living today, encourages speed and impatience. In today's busy work environment, an ever growing number of people are expected to examine ever increasing quantities of documents. At home, relaxing, often, we're no less impatient. As writers, you may think there's little we can do about such "external factors". However, we can help simplify the task of absorbing new information by carefully considering the layout of our publications. Bulleted lists can help address such problems.
  • Creating bullet lists during the writing process can help clarify and separate our thoughts into distinct blocks. Through better clarification, we can more easily avoid introducing any unnecessary repetition.
  • Impatient readers tend to scan documents first, paying particular attention to headings, sub-headings and indented bullet list text. Therefore, including key information in bullet points can be particularly helpful to members of this reader profile.
  • Bullet points help make learning new information easier. Your readers and viewers may be made up many different kinds of people, each with their own issues, problems, preferences, like and dislikes. Often, your audience may have several thought patterns occupying their mind space concurrently, so their concentration may already be "cloudy." 
  • New information presented using bullet points can help ensure your points are understood first time.
  • When illustrating a sequence from one condition to another, use numbered lists instead of conventional bullet points. Why? Numbered lists show a path, specific sequence or progression from one state to another in a more meaningful way than a series of points that use only plain bullets.
  • A carefully considered web design uses CSS to ensure that sufficient empty space is inserted before, after and around your bullet points or numbered lists. This website design applies CSS styling to meet this goal - you're viewing CSS-styled bullet points now.
  • Your bullet points can use more than just conventional bullet symbols at the start. You can experiment with different kinds of arrows, tick marks or other kinds of icon. Again, this website design automatically applies different bullet or numbered list designs with the minimum of extra work required.
  • Make sure that your bullet points and numbered lists are consistent in their design and application. You most likely wouldn't want varying amounts of vertical space between bullet points and numbered lists on the same page. Smart web designs can use CSS-styling to ensure consistency of display.
  • Key tip: use smart technology combined with good design techniques to minimize how you apply different styles of bullet and numbered lists.

Use the power of the bullet or numbered list whenever you can, to reap rewards that only simple lists can deliver.