Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Keep Your Writing Gun Loaded With Bullets

What if I told you there was a simple, sitting-under-your-nose technique that would increase your writing speed, improve your coherence and dramatically enhance your audience's ease of reading. Would you use it? Yes, you'd say. Tell me more! But listen, my friends, you already know about it. I'm talking about bullets, the unsung heroes of the print world. Why are bullets so effective? Glad you asked!

Bullets work because they:

  • Add structure and organization to your writing
  • Provide many compelling entry points for skimmers and scanners
  • Help simplify information (for the reader and writer)
  • Emphasize main points
  • Improve your readers' comprehension

How to use bullets:
  • Begin with a header/title; use a colon if you wish (as above)
  • Make sure that text and bullets are properly aligned
  • Try to apply some sort of logical order based on the alphabet, chronology, geography or priority.
Special rules for using numbers in bulleted text:
  • Use commas in numbers longer than three digits
  • Use a combination of numerals and words for numbers 1 million or larger
  • Ensure numbers line up at the right margin or decimal point
  • Enhance understanding with graphs or pie charts

Bullets can also be used in paragraphs, as I demonstrate in the list below:

Common mistakes with bullets:

  • Using too many of them: Indeed, this short article is guilty of using too many bullets. I've done that deliberately to make a point and have a bit of fun. But use bullets for emphasis. (If everything is emphasized, then nothing is emphasized.)
  • Becoming too color- or font-happy: Let some people loose on a word processor and they'll run amuck with five different colors and oodles of typefaces. Remember that the strongest color is always black (squint your eyes at any piece of full color text and you'll see what I mean.) And keep in mind that less is more. Readers crave simplicity.
  • Allowing hyphenation at line breaks: Above all, bullets should be clean and tidy. You want everything nice, neat, lined up and easy to read. If there's a hyphen at the end of a line, carry the full word over to the next line.
  • Reading bullets at a PowerPoint presentation: At meetings featuring PowerPoint, I'm frequently overwhelmed by the urge to poke out my own eyes. If you must use PowerPoint, please don't read the wretched thing out loud. Just give us the highlights or your interpretation of the data. Or, better yet, tell us some stories instead. Bullets are pretty good at speaking for themselves.
  • Non-parallel construction: Lists need to be logical and consistent. You'll notice that every other item on this "common mistakes" list began with a word ending in -ing. This bullet point doesn't and therefore it's non-parallel -- and wrong. Be consistent. And if you're addressing CEOs or other high-powered decision-makers, you'd be wise to make that consistency focus on imperative verbs. For example (verbs shown in italics):
    • Launch new products
    • Motivate employees better
    • Improve your bottom line
    • Retire early

Bullets aren't the answer to every writing problem -- just as a hammer isn't the only tool employed by a carpenter. But bullets are an exceptionally useful literary device -- far too often neglected or under-employed. Look for opportunities to use them whenever you write.

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of Your Happy First Draft. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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