On target with bullets
How to use bullet points effectively
Much writing in more recent times contains bullet points, a fact which may reflect the modern haste to summarise issues. Bullet points tend to be used for formal and semi-formal texts, and are now often used where sub-clauses were used in the past. The computer, which forms automatic lists with the press of the ‘return’ button, also tends to encourage the use of bullets. Unfortunately, there is a lot of carelessness in the use of bullet points: they are sometimes over-used or used inconsistently or inappropriately. The following notes explain the effective use of bullet points, and how to avoid some common errors in their use.
To use or not to use Bullets?
In academic writing, some Faculties accept the use of bullet points more readily than others do. You should check your Faculty or School advice in this regard. In essence, bullet points are useful in order to present a number of items or aspects of an argument. Sometimes bullet points present single words, sometimes phrases and, sometimes, whole sentences. They should make your meaning clearer and not interrupt the flow of your writing (which they sometimes do, when used too frequently). I have often pointed out to students that too many bullet points can give the impression of a ‘shopping list’ and make your writing seem less serious. Consider the examples below.
Example 1 (single word bullet points)
1.1 The five-stage model of group development (Tuckman 1965) includes:
1.2 The five-stage model of group development (Tuckman 1965) includes: forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning.
- Both of the above sentences are correct.
- There is no need for a comma or semi-colon after single words if bulleted, but you do need commas if written as a sentence.
- Bulleted words which hang from the main sentence or ‘header’ should not begin with a capital letter.
- If you wanted the different stages to stand out, then perhaps the first example is clearer for the reader.
Example 2 (short phrases or sub-clauses bullet points)
2.1 The company directors decided that future training should prepare employees with the skills needed to launch the new project successfully, including:
- project planning skills;
- the necessary technical knowledge;
- the ability to work towards finding new and creative solutions; and
- the ability to work in teams and to inspire others.
This could also be re-written as follows:
The company directors decided that future training should prepare employees with the skills needed to launch the new project successfully, including: project planning skills; the necessary technical knowledge; the ability to work towards finding new and creative solutions; and the ability to work in teams and to inspire others.
- It could be argued that the first example is more effective and easy to follow.
- For longer phrases, you do need semi-colons at the end of each one.
- Sub-clauses do not begin with a capital letter.
- Don’t forget a full stop after the last bullet point.
Some common errors in the use of bullets
The use of bullets involves ‘listing’ single words or phrases that hang from a main sentence or ‘header’. Each word or phrase should make sense when read individually with the header. Errors are made when the word or phrase does not flow correctly from the header. Study the examples below.
Example 3 (some incorrect use)
3.1 (Sloppy example) International students are experiencing difficulties in current times for the following reasons:
- There are health concerns flowing from the COVID 19 pandemic
- Some students are not able to obtain part-time work
- Travelling to Australia has become difficult.
3.2 (Correct example) International students are experiencing difficulties in current times largely due to:
- health concerns flowing from the COVID 19 pandemic;
- economic factors impacting on their ability to obtain part-time work; and
- inability of those overseas to travel to Australia for tertiary studies.
- 3.1 shows sloppy use of bullet points, whereas 3.2 illustrates correct usage.
- In 3.1 the three hanging bullet points are not consistent linguistically, there is missing punctuation and each clause begins with a capital letter.
- On the other hand, the bullet points hanging under 3.2 are consistent: each one starts with a noun, there is correct punctuation and each clause starts in lower case.
3.3 (Sloppy example) Modern leaders are expected to:
- Be able to communicate effectively
- Are people who can inspire their team/s
- Generally deliver results the company has set for itself
3.4 (Correct example) Modern leaders are expected to:
- have excellent communication skills;
- be able to inspire their team/s;
- deliver the results a company has set for itself.
- In the above example 3.3, the points under the header are inconsistent linguistically. If you read each clause separately with the header, you will see that only the first point flows, and the others do not.
- On the other hand, the points under 3.4 can each be read individually with the header and flow nicely.
If you see that you have written a clumsy bulleted sentence or paragraph, you can always re-write it so that it flows smoothly and makes your meaning clear. This normally means changing g the header or changing the clauses for consistency. The easy test is to read the header with each individual point underneath and you will see whether it flows and makes sense.
As to the frequency of bullet points, generally academics do not like to see too much use of them, especially in high-level abstract writing. If you over-use them, you run the danger of your writing looking too much like ‘shopping lists’. Check with your lecturer if unsure, before undertaking a major piece of writing.