Blogging / Editing / Et Al / Technical Writing

Blogging with Lists, Part I: An Overview

Are you a list writer? Can you go a day without writing a list? If you’re like me, lists keep you sane by making life easier. To-do lists, grocery lists, packing lists, idea lists—you get the idea. Lists are a great tool in our everyday lives, but they can also be a great tool in your writing and on your blog, for they can make your writing more readable by grouping related ideas and simplifying complex processes. In the coming weeks, we’ll look at the basics of writing a list and how to write, style, and code the four kinds of lists HTML allows for: ordered, unordered, definition, and nested.

To List or Not to List
Before you begin to draft your list, decide whether you really need a list and plan your list(s) by answering these questions:

  1. Do I need a list? In general, most lists have at least three items, so if you have less than three or if your items are simple ideas, you’re probably safe to leave them in a paragraph.
  2. How many lists do I need? The complexity of your content will help you determine how many lists you should use, but be wary of using too many—your writing could start to look like an outline.
  3. How many items will go in my list? The human brain likes to consume information in chunks, and research suggests that seven plus or minus two is the magic number (in case you didn’t get that, that’s between five and nine items). If you have more than nine items for your list, consider breaking your list into two or adding sub-items.

Writing a Great List
I recently graduated, and at my commencement ceremony, the president of my university introduced the keynote speaker by telling the crowd all the speaker had done for the school. This accomplished two things: First, the crowd was informed why the keynote speaker was important, and second, the keynote speaker didn’t have to say all those nice things about herself. Now, think of your list as a keynote speaker. As the writer, it’s your job to introduce this list so your readers will know why the list is important. Use a complete sentence followed by a colon.

Once your list has been introduced, its free to speak for itself. (Mind you, a list is not a speech, so this is where my analogy breaks up.) The key to writing a great list is consistency. Every single piece of a list item must be consistent with every other list item:

  • Punctuation. Do your list items all end with the same punctuation mark? Do they end with periods, question marks, etc.?
  • First-letter case. Do your list items start with an uppercase letter or a lowercase letter?
  • Sentence structure. Do your list items have parallel sentence structures? Are they all questions, fragments, or complete sentences?
  • First word or phrase. Do your list items begin with a similar grammatical structure? Do they all begin with an action verb, an adjective + a noun, etc.?

That’s it. Other than the specific guidelines for specific kinds of lists, you now have a license to use lists in your writing. Next week, we’ll look at ordered and unordered lists.