Making a list and checking it twice

We all love lists, not just the jolly fellow in red, and most of us can’t get through a day without them. Not only do lists seem to bring order to chaos and help us remember things, but they are easy to spot among paragraphs of text. We notice them, read them, and then, if they are interesting enough, we might read the surrounding text. When we are writing lists we don’t need to concern ourselves with crafting clever sentences, we just need to jot down the keywords.

As writers, we need to compose our lists correctly. Although the principles are fairly straightforward, they are not necessarily well-known.

To begin, there are two types of lists; ordered lists and unordered (or bulleted) lists.
Here is an examples of an ordered list.
What I need to do on my way home:

  1. get the car from the shop
  2. stop by the video store and rent Vertigo
  3. go to 7/11 and buy milk (1%)

Here is an example of an unordered list.

Remember to do these things today:

  • write an article about lists
  • pick-up milk, car from the shop, and a movie on my way home
  • complete the business proposal
  • call my wife

Writing ordered lists

Ordered lists have numbers or letters preceding each item. These numbers and letters imply a sequence or ranking of the items and unless otherwise stated in the text immediately preceding the list (the lead-in), readers assume the items are arranged chronologically or by significance. So our first principle:

1.    Only use ordered lists when arranging the list items chronologically, by significance, or by another method we identify in the lead-in statement.

In legal, regulatory, and other enforceable requirement documents that require us to uniquely label each statement, we often number everything. To help distinguish ordered list items from enforceable items, we can use parentheses or square brackets to mark the enforceable items. Here is an example.

Notice in this example, that numerals with closing parentheses are used to mark regulations. These numbers continue throughout document and do not restart in different sections.

Notice in this example, that numerals with closing parentheses are used to mark regulations. These numbers continue throughout document and do not restart in different sections.

Writing unordered lists

Unordered lists usually have a graphic symbol (or bullet) before each item, but sometimes they are just of the items themselves. Unordered lists as easy to spot in our text and as easy to scan as ordered list, but they don’t imply a sequence or ranking of the list items. So here is our next principle.

2.    Use unordered lists when the list items are not arranged chronologically, by significance, or by another method.

This of course doesn’t mean we don’t think about the order we list the items; we always have a reason for the order we list things. It just means we don’t want to imply an order to our readers.

Even in legal, regulatory and requirement documents, unordered lists can be used for important items if we creatively identify each item. For example, adding some letters to the beginning of the item makes an ordered list look like an unordered list. Here is a sample from a legal and enforceable document that uses this technique.

Notice that by adding the letter R to the beginning of each ordered item, they appear more like bullets and don’t imply that R2 is more important than R3.

Notice that by adding the letter R to the beginning of each ordered item, they appear more like bullets and don’t imply that R2 is more important than R3.

We can write ordered and unordered lists either vertically or horizontally (in-line with the text). The following pages describe rules and guidelines for vertical lists, in-line lists, and for keeping list items parallel.

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Last updated: June 7, 2010
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