Bulleted lists and numbered lists in business writing help readers see and understand the list items easily. When lists are embedded in paragraphs, the list items are jumbled together in a mass of words.

However, text that does not have a recognizable set of items is clearer when the text is in paragraphs rather than bulleted lists or numbered lists. This explanation contains tips that will help you decide when to put business writing into bulleted lists or numbered lists and when to keep it in paragraphs. Follow these three steps:

  1. Name the sections in your business writing with a key word or key phrase that describes the items in the list.
  2. Decide whether the section requires items that pertain to the key word or key phrase name.
  3. If the section key word or key phrase name does not require items, don’t use a bulleted list or numbered list for the section. Write the text in a paragraph.

These tips explain how to write bulleted lists and numbered lists.

1. Name the sections in your business writing

Each section of your business writing explains a topic that is significantly different from the topics in the other sections. Give each section a name. The name will be a key word or key phrase you will use consistently throughout the rest of the business writing to refer to the topic in the section. Usually use the key word or key phrase in the heading for the section and early in the body of the section. Don’t use an alternate term or phrase for these key names. Everything in the section must pertain to the key word.

2. Decide whether the section contains items that pertain to that key word or key phrase name

Some key words or key phrases in business writing require items. Examples are “conclusions,” “recommendations,” “locations,” “topics,” “items,” and so on. When you use the plural of these key words in your business writing, the reader will expect to read a list of whatever the name is. If you have a key word or key phrase for the section that requires a list of items, write a bulleted list or numbered list. Use a bulleted list for items that do not have to be in a specific order. Use a numbered list for items that must be in a specific order, such as steps or a timeline of events.

3. If the section key word or key phrase name does not require items, don’t use a bulleted list or numbered list for the content

If the section key word or key phrase name does not require items, don’t create a bulleted list or numbered list for the section; leave the text in paragraph form. The three numbered sections in this explanation are in a numbered list because they are steps. Within the sections, however, the text is in paragraphs. The key phrase names for the sections don’t require a bulleted list or numbered list of items.

In your business writing, assume you will not put text into a bulleted list or numbered list format. Create a numbered list or bulleted list only when the key word or key phrase name suggests you need a list and the text contains items that fit with the key word or key phrase name.

More on bulleted lists and numbered lists . . .

Examples of bulleted lists or numbered lists in business writing

This business writing contains two sections. One section contains a list the writer should break out into a bulleted list. The other should be a paragraph.

We observed Simon in the school setting on March 13. We noticed aggressive behavior in the classroom and lunchroom. We believe we can identify the reason he is becoming aggressive in his relationships based on what we have seen. When we understand the reason, we will come to a solution that will eliminate the problem the parents have seen at home. There are factors we believe are important to note about such behavior in children. Some of this type of behavior is normal for a 6-year-old. Arrival of a new baby in the home will contribute to acting out. When a child is an only child and has been at home with only the mother, the separation can result in acting out as a way to be sent home. Family difficulties such as the impending divorce may also result in aggressive behavior.

Some writers would mistakenly attempt to use bulleted lists or numbered lists for all text in this business writing example. The result would be a business report like this:

  • We observed Simon in the school setting on March 13.
  • We noticed aggressive behavior in the classroom and lunchroom.
  • We believe we can identify the reason he is becoming aggressive in his relationships based on what we have seen.
  • When we understand the reason, we will come to a solution that will eliminate the problem the parents have seen at home.
  • There are factors we believe are important to note about such behavior in children.
  • Some of this type of behavior is normal for a 6-year-old.
  • Arrival of a new baby in the home will contribute to acting out.
  • When a child is an only child and has been at home with only the mother, the separation can result in acting out as a way to be sent home.
  • Family difficulties such as the impending divorce may also result in aggressive behavior.

Putting all of the sentences into a numbered list or bulleted list makes the business writing more difficult to read and understand. Readers need formatting to show the parts of business writing.

The first paragraph has no key word or phrase describing the contents of the bulleted list, such as “factors.” As a result, the first paragraph must remain as a paragraph. It does contain “things” or “facts,” but those names are too general to require numbered lists or bulleted lists. The writer should not have forced the business writing into a bulleted list.

The second paragraph is a list. The key word name for the list in the second paragraph is “factors.” The entire name is “factors we believe are important to note about such behavior in children.” The writer realizes the text contains four items that are factors. More specifically for this bulleted list, the items are “factors we believe are important to note about such behavior in children.” As a result, the writer must write the second paragraph in a bulleted list.

One acceptable format for the report follows, using a paragraph and bulleted list:

We observed Simon in the school setting on March 13. We noticed aggressive behavior in the classroom and lunchroom. We believe we can identify the reason he is becoming aggressive in his relationships based on what we have seen. When we understand the reason, we will come to a solution that will eliminate the problem the parents have seen at home.

We believe the following four factors are important to realize about such behavior in children:

  • Some of this type of behavior is normal for a 6-year-old.
  • Arrival of a new baby in the home will contribute to acting out.
  • When a child is an only child and has been at home with only the mother, the separation can result in acting out as a way to be sent home.
  • Family difficulties such as the impending divorce may also result in aggressive behavior.

Create bulleted lists or numbered lists in sections of your business writing

Follow the same guidelines to decide when to create bulleted lists or numbered lists for parts of your business writing and when to write paragraphs for other parts. You may have a section of your business writing that you are writing in paragraph form for the first draft. As you write the paragraphs, if you see two or more items that pertain to a key word or key phrase, break out the items into a bulleted list or numbered list. Introduce the list using the key word or key phrase name and a number. Then list the items.

This is an example of business writing in paragraph form that has a list in it:

The Internal Conveyances Department performs important plant tasks each day. The department moves employees within the Rudolph Plant complex. The vans take employees from the gate to their work areas. Another function of the vans is to transport employees to storage areas to pick up supplies. Employees are also taken to areas such as the cafeteria and training rooms. In addition, Internal Conveyances Department delivers internal packages, tools, and inter-office mail. The Internal Conveyances Department has a staff of seven people. The vans receive regular maintenance, and the company replaces them every two years. Replaced vans are available for employees to purchase at a greatly discounted price.

To find out whether this section of business writing should be in a bulleted list or numbered list, follow this procedure:

  1. Identify a potential key word or key phrase name for a bulleted list or numbered list that you see in the business writing. If you don’t see a key word or phrase, see whether the paragraph contains items. In this case, the key term could be “tasks,” a word that appears in the first line.
  2. Look at the sentences to see whether they are all tasks. If so, change the business writing to a bulleted list or numbered list so all the sentences are list items.
  3. If none of the sentences are tasks, consider another key word or key phrase name. If you find no suitable key word or key phrase name, don’t create a list in the business writing.
  4. If some sentences are tasks but some are not, create a paragraph for the business writing that is not a list; create a list for the text that has a key term name or phrase and has items. The list items will all fit the criteria for being tasks.

More on bulleted and numbered lists . . .

Example of overuse of the numbered or bulleted list for the business writing

This is an example of a revision of the business writing that is not correct. The bulleted list includes items that are not tasks:

The Internal Conveyances Department moves employees within the Rudolph Plant complex to perform the following tasks:

  • The vans take employees from the gate to their work areas.
  • Another function of the vans is to transport employees to storage areas to pick up supplies.
  • Employees are also taken to areas such as the cafeteria and training rooms.
  • In addition, the Internal Conveyances Department delivers internal packages, tools, and inter-office mail.
  • The Internal Conveyances Department has a staff of seven people.
  • The vans receive regular maintenance, and the company replaces them every two years.
  • Replaced vans are available for employees to purchase at a greatly discounted price.

Placing sentences into lists indiscriminately loses the value of the lists. The reader cannot identify and remember the items in the lists that belong together.

Example of appropriate use of a bulleted list for the business writing

In the example above, the writer can see that the last three don’t fit in the list as tasks, so they should be in a separate paragraph. Each paragraph has a key word or key phrase name just as each list has. In this case, the last two sentences have the key phrase name of “other facts about the department.” The change in name requires a change to a new paragraph.

One acceptable format for the text follows:

The Internal Conveyances Department performs the following five important plant tasks each day:

  • Moving employees within the Rudolph Plant complex
  • Taking employees from the gate to their work areas
  • Transporting employees to storage areas to pick up supplies
  • Taking employees to areas such as the cafeteria and training rooms
  • Delivering internal packages, tools, and inter-office mail

The department has a staff of seven people. The vans receive regular maintenance, and the company replaces them every two years. Replaced vans are available for employees to purchase at a greatly discounted price.

Guidelines for using bulleted lists and numbered lists in business writing

These are useful guidelines for writing bulleted lists or numbered lists in your business writing:

  • Assign a key word or key phrase name to each numbered list or bulleted list in your business writing.
  • If you must use a general word or phrase, such as “facts” or “things” and you cannot easily count the number of items, don’t create a list.
  • Make sure every item in your business writing is an example of the key word or key phrase name.
  • Introduce every bulleted list or numbered list with a sentence that uses the key word or key phrase name for the items in the list. More on introducing lists . . .
  • Usually write the number of items in the introduction, such as “three conclusions.” More on writing items in lists . . .
  • Use a colon at the end of text in business writing if the text preceding the colon is a complete sentence. If the text is not a complete sentence, use a comma or no punctuation. More on using colons . . .
  • If the items in the numbered list or bulleted list are complete sentences, capitalize the first letter of each item and end each item with a period.
  • If the items in the numbered list or bulleted list in your business writing are not complete sentences, usually capitalize the first letter of the first word and put no punctuation and no “and” at the ends of the items.
  • If the items in the bulleted list or numbered list flow from the text preceding the list as though they were a continuation of the text, you may choose not to capitalize the first words of the numbered list or bulleted list items, but do not use end punctuation.
  • Every item must fit with the text preceding the list if the items are not themselves complete sentences.
  • Make numbered or bulleted list items parallel in construction. More on formatting lists . . .
  • Write bulleted lists for items that don’t have to be in one order and numbered lists for items that must be in order.
  • Put the bullet or number for the list within one or two blank characters of the first letter of the text.
  • When the items in a numbered list or bulleted list wrap to two lines, put blank space between the items using Word’s Paragraph function.
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