20 surefire tips for using bullets like a pro

Bullet points can bring clarity to an otherwise dense report, delivering quickfire information. But overuse them and you could shoot yourself in the foot – too many can make a document very hard to read.

There are 20 bullet points in this article. Take each of them on board next time you draft a document and you’ll be formatting like a pro in no time.

Why use bullets?

Bullet points are great for communicating information and breaking up text. For example, they can:

  • make lists clearer, as they are more visual
  • use white space well
  • grab attention by drawing the reader’s eye
  • help readers scan information
  • reduce word count.

When to use bullets

Bullet lists always need an introduction (like this one) and are good for:

  • concise web content
  • conveying key information
  • breaking down complex lists
  • summarising main points
  • giving instructions.

Bullets can be particularly useful in technical writing. In our experience, they’re popular with scientists and engineers, who sometimes even have a tendency to overuse them as a substitute for structured prose. Historians and policy makers, on the other hand, tend to prefer more connected text, and in some cases don’t even use bullets at all.

So, how do you strike a good balance? Just remember that they should be the exception, not the rule. They can’t draw the reader’s eye if they’re everywhere, so reserve them for your hardest hitting, most concise points.

When to dodge the bullets

As a general rule, readers don’t like bullet points when:

  • there are too many or the points are too long
  • they are used for unimportant details
  • the story is emotive or involved and so needs connected text
  • (T)he punctuation is erratic and distracting(;)
  • some of them are very much longer than others and it’s difficult to really see what the point of this particular type of bullet point is – in fact when the writer is just rambling on and simply wasting the reader’s time (annoying, isn’t it?).

How to punctuate bullets

There are various different styles of punctuating bullet points, and no hard-and-fast rules on the right way to do it. The most important thing is to have a consistent style across your organisation. At Emphasis, for example, we use two different styles.

When the bullet points are not full sentences (as in this article so far), we use:

  • lower case
  • no punctuation
  • a full stop after the final bullet if it ends the sentence (as this one does).

However, if we’re using bullet points for a list of complete sentences:

  • We use a capital letter at the start of each one.
  • And we end each one with a full stop.

So there you have it, 20 bullets to help you hit your writing targets. Do you have a preferred style? Do you want to come clean as a bullet-point addict or phobic? We’d like to hear what you think – join the discussion below.

How to use bullet points effectively is just one of the many topics we typically cover in our in-company courses and courses for individuals

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