What’s the first aim of any piece of writing?

Before your text does anything, it must be understood. If your reader can’t understand what you’re saying, what chance have you got of them doing what you want?

Will someone buy or act when they don’t understand you? Will someone change their behaviour? Almost certainly not. It can be difficult and frustrating at first, but remembering to write for your audience, rather than at your audience, is crucial.

To achieve anything with writing, you must be understood. But how do you make sure your message is received?

One way to increase understanding is by using lists. Lists can:

  • break up longer sentences into bitesize chunks;
  • create more white space on the page (which boosts readability);
  • introduce simplicity; and
  • force you to focus on the most important parts of your message.

When should you use lists?

Lists are particularly helpful when you find yourself writing a long sentence with lots of commas. Look at your long sentence carefully. Is there a way to break up the information and present it in a more reader-friendly format?

In general, there are three types of lists.

  • Some lists have each point as a complete sentence.
  • Some lists have a series of points as part of a single, continuous sentence.
  • Some lists contain only very short (two or three words) points.

The first list in this article is a list where each point forms part of a continuous sentence. The second list in this article contains points that are complete sentences. And the next list in this article uses only very short points.

Will you use lists in your writing from now on?

  • Yes
  • No
  • Maybe

If you’re unsure how to punctuate your list, fear not. There are no hard-and-fast rules to worry about, but there are some widely used guidelines that may help:

  • If each bullet in the list is a self-contained sentence, start each with a capital letter and end with a full stop.
  • If each bullet (and the introductory line that precedes them) is part of a single sentence, don’t start with a capital and don’t end with a full stop. You could instead end each with a semi-colon (;) and the final one with a full stop. Or you could (and this style of minimal punctuation is increasingly popular) just leave them with nothing at the end.
  • If the list is just a few short points, it’s up to you whether you begin each one with a capital letter or not, but they don’t need full stops.

Further reading to help sharped up your copywriting:

The Wordsworks Guide to Plain English (Part One) – Don’t Bang On

The Wordsworks Guide to Plain English (Part Two) – Get Personal