3 Tips on How to Write a Good List
Lists are useful, but you have to do them right. I have much to say on the topic of lists, but today I am going to limit myself to my most recent experience.
This past week, I was asked by a client to clarify a section of a document that seemed a little bit muddled. It took me a while to figure out, but I solved it in the end.
Here are the basic problems that I identified with the list, if you avoid these you are already halfway to writing a good list:
- Incorrect order of information
The original writer appeared to have written the list from their point of departure. Imagine that you have thought something through from beginning to end. When you sit down to write, you are already at the “end”, but your reader isn’t.
Starting at the end and working back to the beginning can be confusing in a list. Rather start your list at the “beginning” and walk your reader through the progression. My big breakthrough with clarifying this list came when I realised that it made more sense read from bottom to top than the other way around.
- Too much repetition within items
Each item on the list that I was trying to clarify began with the same phrase. This phrase added at least seven words to each item that didn’t need to be there.
Too much repetition can be confusing to a reader. In the case of a list, the problem is easily solved. Place the repeated phrase in your lead-in sentence. Take a look at the example below.
To complete the task team members must:
- Individually or collectively, as is appropriate, review the information;
- Individually or collectively, as is appropriate, communicate with the client;
- Individually or collectively, as is appropriate, meet the agreed upon deadlines; and
- Individually or collectively, as is appropriate, give feedback to management on progress.
To complete the task team members must individually or collectively, as is appropriate:
- review the information
- communicate with the client
- meet the agreed upon deadlines
- give feedback to management on progress
- Items that don’t belong on the list
Take care to ensure that all the items on the list belong to the same category of information. In the case of the list that I was sorting, the final point on the list didn’t belong there. It was as if it had accidentally been caught up in the bullets.
Check your lists to make sure that every point is part of the group of items that you wish to list. You may wish to make a statement that is on the same topic, but not part of the “group”. In this case, write it in a separate paragraph either before or after the list.
Watch for these three common mistakes and your lists will be more concise and clear. Bear in mind that a list may not always be the best tool to present information to your reader.
In the case of the list that I was sorting, I landed up writing a three-sentence paragraph that was less than a third of the length of the list. It gave a clearer picture of what was expected of the reader because it didn’t overwhelm the reader with too many words and an illogical sequence.
Until next time, keep it constructive!