In technical communication, the goal is typically to convey information, and using lists can be a helpful tool in organizing your document, highlighting particularly important points, and helping to structure your paragraphs and, in some cases, your sentences. Listing can increase the readability of text by simplifying long sentences or paragraphs and adding white space to make reading more pleasant. However, using the wrong kind of list or poorly formatting a list can create confusion rather than enhance readability. Therefore, it is important to understand the various types of lists and how best to use them.
General Guidelines for Creating Lists in Technical Documents
- Include between 2-8 items in a list. You must have at least two items in a list (or it’s not a list; it’s just an item). Avoid having more than 8 items in a list, as too many items can have the reverse effect. If you emphasize too many ideas, you end up emphasizing nothing. NASA recommends no more than 8 steps in an emergency procedure; more than 8 can be overwhelming in a crisis situation.
- Avoid splitting a list over two pages if possible.
- Avoid overusing lists. A list should always have explanatory text around it to indicate what this is a list of and why it is needed. A series of lists does not give a reader adequate information and context.
- Adjust spacing before, after, and within lists to enhance readability. Avoid having a list of information all scrunched up into a dense block of text; this defeats the purpose of enhancing readability.
- Capitalize the first letter of each list item.
- Use parallel phrasing/parallel construction for each listed item (for example, keep your verbs the same whenever possible. GOOD: gardening, mowing, and weeding. BAD: gardening, mow the lawn, and weed.
Just as graphs serve a different purpose than photos in a document, different kinds of lists also serve different purposes. Here are five commonly used types of lists:
Bullet lists are the most commonly used kind of list. They are effective when:
- You want to emphasize two or more items
- You can place the items in any order (no particular order is required)
- You want to add white space to your document to enhance readability.
Bullet list items should generally be short; if you find your bulleted items are longer than a few words, consider using another kind of list, such as a labeled list or a nested list (see below).
Use numbered lists when the order of the listed items is important and ideas must be expressed in chronological order. For example, use a numbered list when you must enumerate a series of steps in instructions, or when you are introducing ideas that will be discussed in a certain order in the following text.
A simple numbered list:
- Unplug machine
- Remove outer cover
- Remove inner protective liner…
*If you have a list of more than 8 items, consider breaking up the list into stages or phases.
PHASE I: Revise your document in the following order:
- Check formatting for readability
- Review content to ensure the document contains all necessary information
- Edit sentence style and structure to ensure ideas are clearly and correctly expressed in a formal and precise manner
- Proofread for grammar, spelling, punctuation and usage errors.
Use in-sentence lists when you have a short list of two to four items and want to maintain sentence structure and paragraphing:
There are three main reasons why the company failed: their overhead was too high, the demand for product decreased, and they lost some of their funding.
Use labeled lists when the items require some explanation or amplification. This list of lists you’re reading now is an example of a labeled list—note the use of used bold text and section headings to set things apart.
Use nested lists when listed items have sub-lists, which is a list(s) within a larger list:
There are three main reasons why this happened:
- Overhead was too high
- The demand for product decreased
- Fewer orders
- Less overall interest in the product
- Lost some funding sources
- Funding source example 1
- Funding source example 2
- Overhead was too high
Like headings, the various types of lists are an important feature of technical writing: they help readers understand, remember, and review key points; they help readers follow a sequence of actions or events; and they break up long stretches of straight text.
- “Bulleted and Numbered Lists.” Online Technical Writing
- “How and When to Use Lists,” a slideshow on using lists from Technical Writing Essentials
CHAPTER ATTRIBUTION INFORMATION
"3.3 Lists." Technical Writing Essentials. [License: CC BY 4.0]