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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Comments from our users:

Wednesday February 20th 2008, 6:26 AM
Comment by: bernard S.
No particular comment with respect to the article other than I found it worthwhile and that it refreshed my thinking on bullets...

On a braoder view; I find Visual Thesaurus to be better than other such "word for the day" sites...

Thank you and have a good day...

Wednesday February 20th 2008, 7:58 AM
Comment by: Renee
Does the use of bullets and their effectiveness depend on the style of writing? For example, in a blog, a medium intended to be casual, descriptive, and more like a conversation, wouldn't bullets give a post a choppy, less personal feel?
Wednesday February 20th 2008, 8:17 AM
Comment by: Giuseppe P.
A well written suggestion about something I use a lot. (I am no professional writer).

It will help me improve a little bit.

And thank you.

Wednesday February 20th 2008, 8:46 AM
Comment by: Ed C.
I have dropped using a colon when the fragment before the bullets is a heading (like in your article). Thoughts?
Wednesday February 20th 2008, 8:55 AM
Comment by: Kenneth K.
I have just logged onto Visual Thesaurus as I do most mornings and I am upset by the title that came up. With the recent violence on campus, I cannot have this title on the computer screens of my classroom.
Wednesday February 20th 2008, 9:14 AM
Comment by: Matt H.
You'll have a long day ahead of you attemnpting to censor every internet title with loose association to a current event. Better to talk about it with them and get it out into the open then put the burden on VT contributors.
Wednesday February 20th 2008, 9:38 AM
Comment by: Eliza M.
Five stars (or bullets, if you wish.) Bullets, long the specialty of direct marketing writers, now simply reflect Web 2.0 living. Bullets engage readers to skim before they opt-in;absorb information quickly; and engage the eye visually. Great writer tips

Wednesday February 20th 2008, 10:52 AM
Comment by: Paul P.
Kenneth, you're killing me. You can't shoot down every title because it might, somehow, have a loose associtation to an event. To fire off remarks like that just invites silly responses from people just dying to mow-down other's opinions.
Wednesday February 20th 2008, 11:08 AM
Comment by: David C.
Great article about a sometimes misused but too often unused tool.
I do take exception to the comment about not reading the PowerPoint bullets out loud. If you don't the audience is and they are doing it while you are telling your story, perhaps missing your comments. Instead, make the bullet text concise. Read it thru and then tell your stories or make your interpretations.
Wednesday February 20th 2008, 2:29 PM
Comment by: Adam K.
Excellent article, Daphne.

I knew from the subject that the entire article would be written in bullet points; I mean, how could you resist?

And, how great to see your face on the front page of VT... I'm so glad I've become a member!

Keep up the great advice!
Thursday February 21st 2008, 4:38 AM
Comment by: MOHAMED S.
Bullets are very helpful for the writer to put his her thoughts as they flow in the brain, but those bullets are abbreviations that are only clear in the writer's mind. For example, when you have a presentation you use bullets to remind you of important topic in a given structure, but no one can benefit from those bullets if you don't present what is in your mind for each. Therefore, bullets need always to have few lines next to each to transmit what the writer has in mind.
Thursday February 21st 2008, 12:10 PM
Comment by: Finley G.
Thank you! Convincing the formal writers in the office-not in my lifetime.
You are correct.
Thursday February 21st 2008, 3:09 PM
Comment by: Steve C. (Glenmont, NY)
Straightforward, short ,clear sentences. If you are not a flowery or literary writer who one would perceive as a "good writer" then you can start out the way you describe in your article "Keep your writing gun..."

I wish our schools would start out the children this way and then as they mature start to become "more clever"
Thank you for your very clear instruction and for making those of us who have never matured as "Good writers" to be well understood writers nevertheless.

Thursday February 21st 2008, 4:15 PM
Comment by: Alice M.
Great job on bullets. In today's Internet world, that's the best way to get your message across.
And it works especially well with time-starved senior management.
• Summarize
• summarize
• summarize.
They'll thank you for it.

Thursday February 21st 2008, 5:11 PM
Comment by: kenneth S.
I enjoyed reading the article and the comments. I have long used bullets in writing longhand, as in journaling and making personal notes... But it has never even occured to me to try bullets when writing online.

Thanks for the tip!
Sunday March 2nd 2008, 3:23 AM
Comment by: Craig D.
Bullets are today's answer to Attention Deficit Disorder. Twenty years ago, they would have been eschewed as too superficial, too fleeting to warrant attention. Indeed, twenty years ago, overhead acetate was common, yet still, bullets hadn't been "invented."

To my, the efficacy of bullets presented via overhead projector, let alone handouts, are still questionable. I find that most people substitute PowerPointless presentations in lieu of real, engaged conversation with their audience.

What's needed is not more PowerPoint skills, but increased exposure to real presentation skills -- the kind for which there's not a single PowerPoint presentation on the planet that can substitute.

For visual (i.e., graphic) effect, they're perhaps useful. But the bottom line is this: People who think their presentation requires a PowerPointless slide show haven't yet learned how to command an audience with oratory skill and prowess. Think about it: When you're listening to a great speaker, do you give a hoot whether s/he's prepared fabulously entertaining slides? Heck no. Nor are you thinking to yourself, "This talk would be SO much better with PowerPoint slides."

Judge this as you like, but PowerPoint is to presentation quality what "The dog ate my paper" is to homework.

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