Tools for effective writing: bullet and numbered lists

When dealing with complex or dense information, breaking down text into bulleted or numbered lists eases reading and helps readers better scan and comprehend information, which leads better retention.

Let’s look at an example. Here is a typical style of paragraph found in corporate writings:

To be a productive employee, you must keep your workstation clean and organized, not spend excessive time watching cat videos on YouTube, keep chatting with coworkers to a minimum, and arrive promptly to all meetings. There will be consequences if your boss finds you to not be productive. First, you will receive a written warning. If unproductive behavior continues, your boss will have an official review of your work activities. The next step is a three-week unpaid leave of absence. The final step is feeding you to the alligators.

Here is how this information would look when broken down into a bulleted and numbered list. Note the headers in bold to draw attention to the information listed below.

To be a productive employee, you must:
• keep your workstation clean and organized
• not spend excessive time watching cat videos on YouTube
• keep chatting with coworkers to a minimum
• arrive promptly to all meetings

There will be consequences if your boss finds you to not be productive. Beginning with the first consequence, they are:
1. written warning
2. official review of your work activities
3. three-week unpaid leave of absence
4. feeding you to the alligators

In the second example, the reader can more directly access the important information because it is not in a cluttered, tightly packed paragraph.

More white space
Another positive aspect of using bulleted and numbered lists is the increased amount of white space this creates on the page. If you are reading a full page or more that is loaded with important information you need to know, looking at a page that appears uncluttered, due to the lists, makes the thought of getting through the material feel less daunting. If you are the one writing the material, the added white space results in more people actually reading your writing (because they feel it will take less time and the page looks less intimidating) and thus increased comprehension and retention of the information.

How do I access bullets and numbers in Word?
Go to Format and then click on Bullets and Numbering. In the box that appears, you may click on the style of bullet or numbering you like best, and then click OK. The bullet or number will appear in your document. After you have written what you wish for that bullet point/number, simply hit return to create the next bullet point or number.

When to say persons vs. people

crowd of people with their hands in the air

Whoa . . . look at all those people! Photo by Ezra Comeau-Jeffrey on Unsplash

Do you want your writing to be instantly transformed into a mucky mess of corporate-sounding mush? Then be sure to use persons as the plural word for person. Whiz! Bang! You’ve got yourself something no one will want to read.

Today we usually only see persons in those kinds of behemoth documents. (Think about the Human Resources manuals you had to promise your boss you read.) It wasn’t always this way, though.

There is a difference between people and persons. Traditionally, persons was used when referring to a group of humans for which the exact number of humans was known.

Example: Four persons were involved in the robbery.

People was used as a mass noun when you didn’t know the number of humans in a group.

Example: There were so many people at the rally.

The words’ etymologies support this traditional usage. Person comes from the Latin word persona, meaning a singular “human being, person.” People comes from the Latin word populus, meaning “a people, nation; body of citizens; a multitude.”

Modern usage
When considering person’s etymology, it follows that plural word for multiple individuals should be persons. However, people has so taken over the definition of persons, in addition to its own, that now you really only see it in those stuffy Human Resources documents and legal writings I mentioned earlier.

So unless you’re a lawyer, or you’re writing a really boring piece of corporate text, use people.

Erin Servais is a book editor and author coach helping women entrepreneurs reach their publishing goals. To learn how she can help you with your next project, check out her website: Dot and Dash LLC.