“Dear God,” you’re saying right now, “Did this guy actually write an entire blog post just on how to write a bullet point list? What … a … nerd!”
Yes, I did. And I’m not sorry.
For all the writing that bloggers do, most of them are surprisingly bad at wielding the humble bullet point list. It’s like a spaghetti spoon. You’ve probably boiled spaghetti noodles hundreds of times, but did you know the hole in the middle of the spoon is the perfect size for measuring out a single serving?
See? Just because you do something all the time doesn’t mean you’re any good at it. (There’s a sex joke somewhere in here, but I’ll leave it for your dirty mind to make up.)
After editing hundreds of blog posts from freelance writers (plus reading a few thousand more), I’ve come to the conclusion that most writers don’t understand how to compose a bullet point list. They write them reflexively, but their instincts are off.
Advising people how to write bullet points is one of my most common feedback suggestions. Plus, composing bullet points for blogging isn’t the same as composing them for essays and reports.
Here are the 8 most common problems I see in bullet points for blogs:
You Didn’t Include Bullet Points in the First Place!
The biggest problem I see with bullet point lists is they don’t exist! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve downloaded a .docx, opened a 1,200-word blog post, and been rudely slapped in the face with a wall of 11-pt Arial.
You are not Tom Wolfe, my friend. No one reads a blog post about “Your 7 Reasons Your Hot Tub Jets Aren’t Working” because they can’t wait to see how it ends!
- Never use bullet point in PowerPoints
- Always use bullet points in blog posts.
I contend that many blog post Readers are short on time and patience. You need to spoon-fed them well-seasoned solutions to their problems. A bullet point list is a time-honored method to break apart complex sequences or groups into digestible bites.
Here are some examples of what can be split into lists:
- Sequences: Anything chronological, sequential, or consecutive can be divided into a numerical list.
- Collections: Collections, groupings, samples, and examples are more understandable and accessible as unordered lists.
- Competing Concepts: Pros and cons, advantages and disadvantages, do’s and dont’s, and similar phrases make great side-by-side bullet point lists!
- Data: You can highlight critical data in a bullet point list easier than burying it inside a sentence.
- Takeaways: Takeaways, recaps, and main points are perfect candidates for bullet point lists. Often used at the end of an H2 section or as an article conclusion.
- Promises: In marketing copy, bullet points are commonly used to set apart elements of the sales proposition. I’ll demonstrate below.
Ahem, here’s the demonstration of how to use bullet points to set apart promises:
Are you tired of losing your smartphone? We’ve solved that problem with our Bluetooth-enabled 360 Tracker. You’ll be able to:
- Locate your phone from up to 250 feet away!
- Sound off an alarm even if your phone is on vibrate!
- Track down your phone even if it’s underwater!
The white space around the bullet points highlights the entries, much like a mat sets off a framed photograph.
You Hid Information Inside of Other Points
One thought; one line item. That’s the Golden Rule of bullet point lists. Yet many writers will stash two, three, or four thoughts within a single list entry!
That violates the maximum that a blog post must be scannable. If a Reader skims the first sentence of a list item and ignores the rest, they’ve missed out on critical information!
Follow this rule religiously.
You Were Just Plain Boring
There are five great sins in blogging: plagiarism, falsity, obviousness, obtuseness, and blandness. (I just made those up.)
No one has ever watched an academic lecture overflowing with bullet point lists of their own free will. That’s because they’re boring. And we humans hate, hate boring. We recoil from it. So why do you expect your Reader to slog through your own boring bullet points?
Each bullet point is a mini headline!
- Make ‘em mad. Or sad. Or joyful. Or fearful. Elicit some emotion. People will read whatever makes them feel something, even if it’s negative. Just ask Donald Trump why he watched all the late night comedy programs dishing on him all the time.
- Tempt their curiosity – and you won’t believe what happens next! Take advantage of the curiosity gap. It’s like leading a Reader with a trail of breadcrumbs.
- Write directly to the Reader. That’s the easiest way to improve tone and authority within a blog post.
You Forgot About Symmetry
Symmetry, or parallelism, is a fundamental rhetorical concept. We humans like neatness. We only like the awkward if it’s funny.
For instance, this sort of sentence would bother most people: “After dinner, I poured a glass of wine, read a newspaper, and the neighbor’s dogs have been barking at me all day.” That third clause sticks out like a dandelion weed in June; mow that thing down!
Symmetry shows up everywhere in writing. In this post, as an example, all my H2 headings have a similar sentence structure.
Here are some tips for writing symmetrical bullet points:
- Begin each bullet with a directive. Make an imperative statement or state an argument.
- Use implied subjects. Just like this bullet point, where (You) is the implied subject of “(You} use implied subjects,” stated as an imperative rather than a declarative.
- Keep the entry length consistent. Don’t make one bullet point a sentence fragment and the next a full-fledged five-sentence paragraph.
- Lead with a verb. Many a list can be improved simply by beginning the topical sentence with an action verb. This transforms the entries into a mini To-Do list.
Pro Tip: Trust your ear! Read aloud, and you’ll catch symmetry sins your eyes never would.
You Composed a Grocery List
Bullet point lists should be between 2 and 10 entries, with 3-6 being the most common. Any longer than 6-10, and your list becomes a wall of text itself.
You Added Sub-Bullet Points
I have made this flub myself, but I have since repented and promised to change. Leave the sub-bullets to lab reports and academic reporting. Remember, humans have pretty pathetic short-term RAM memory. Sub bullets completely defeat the point of a list, which is to be pithy, short, and memorable.
Your Wrote Paragraphs, not Points
Some writers feel compelled to write long entries for every list item. Their every list entry has an introduction, a middle, and a conclusion.
Yuck! What’s the point of writing a bullet point list if you’re just going to fill the space with regular ol’ paragraphs?
There’s no magical length for a bullet point list item: It can be as short as one word or as long as 2-3 sentences. But if you find yourself writing 3+ sentences per entry, then you should probably break up the list into a series of H3 or H4 sub-sections, complete with headings.
Breaking up paragraph-style lists into H3/H4 sections isn’t just helpful for your reader; it’s good for SEO. Search engines speak fluent HTML; an H4 heading with a short paragraph is considered far more important than a list item entry.
(I’m taking the high road and assuming your entries are full of valuable content. But half the time, bullets are too long because there’s simply too much fluff. Bullets aren’t the place to add context, consider the other side, or go off on a tangent. Only highlight what’s important.)
You Forgot to Add Keywords
I’m not suggesting you cram a bunch of long tail keyword phrases into every bullet. That’s an outdated playbook straight from the ‘90s.
What I am suggesting is that, where appropriate, you should include relevant search terms and keyword phrases your Reader may be looking for. After all, everyone knows Google doesn’t always get it right. Your Reader will be subconsciously questioning whether your content truly answers their question. Emphasizing some search terms will clue the Reader into what your post is all about.
Pro Tip: Bold the Topical Statement
Lastly, I end with a pro tip: Any time I write a bullet point list with longer entries, I always, always bold the topic sentence.
- If writing paragraph-style list items, I bold the first sentence. The first sentence is normally a mini thesis statement; it should be able to stand on its two feet. The following sentences add context, cite evidence, or refute counterclaims.
- Another possibility: Begin a bullet point list with the subject and a description, separated by a colon.
- Here’s what you don’t want to do. You don’t want to write a paragraph-style list item without highlighting the critical information. Otherwise, how does your Reader know when they’ve groked the main point? Do you trust them to read all the way to the end of the entry? Plus, now your list looks like just another wall of text, and you’ve missed the point completely. At this point, this list entry is far too long, contains multiple arguments, and symmetry is not being used. Are you still reading this? Why? Can’t you tell the article is over, and I’m not going to write a separate conclusion?
- No, seriously, it’s over.