The Art Of The Dot Point List

There’s a definite art to creating a dot point list and some of the skill involved is about the visual choices you make. But there are some other things to consider, too.

Why use a dot point list?

A dot point list in your written text is a great way to create visual impact, break up content for easier reading, emphasise key ideas, or add a structural component to your text. 

In fact, because the sentence above mentions four reasons to use a dot point list, it is probably better to rewrite it, using a dot point list.

A dot point list can improve your written text. It’s a great way to:

  • Create visual impact
  • Break up content for easier reading
  • Emphasise key ideas
  • Add a structural component to your text. 

If there isn’t a great deal more to say, you can elaborate briefly on each of the items within the list

Example:

A dot point list can improve your written text. It’s a great way to:

  • Create visual impact. It stands out from the text around it and creates contrast and increased ‘white space’
  • Break up content for easier reading. It helps to organize the reader’s thoughts more effectively than a complex sentence might
  • Emphasise key ideas. Each one can be outlined, and then elaborated upon, as needed
  • Add a structural component to your text. It can serve as a short overview or, if the dot point items need expanded content, the list can be a preview of what’s to come. 

If there is more to say, as I suggest in the final dot point, above, then each of the items in the list can be the basis for a subheading. Expanded content usually involves one or two paragraphs.

Examples of subheadings: 

            Dot point lists create visual impact

            Using dot points makes reading easier

            Emphasise key ideas using dot points

            A dot point list helps organise your content

How to construct a dot point list

As you can see in my examples above, there are some guidelines to follow when constructing a dot point list.

Before the list you should write an introduction, followed by a colon (:) and each of the items should follow logically from the introduction.

If the introduction is a sentence, then the items that follow should follow the same pattern. 

Example: 

Here are several things you should do in a dot point list:

  • Use upper case for the first letter in each item. Even if the item is not the beginning of a sentence, it creates a better visual effect
  • Keep the format consistent; here I have used instructional verbs to start each item 
  • Place a full stop only after the final item. On screens and powerpoint slides, some people leave this out, preferring to use minimal punctuation.

If you use a part-sentence as an introduction, make sure each item ‘finishes the sentence’.

Example:

You can claim the benefit owed to you by: 

  • Checking you meet all criteria
  • Filling in Form A396.867
  • Submitting the form by 30 June.

The ‘art’ of the dot point

After you’ve taken the trouble to construct a well thought out list, it would be a pity to ruin the effect with an unwise style choice.

Usually, you would choose a simple style from the Bulletpoints library in the Home tab on the standard toolbar. You can, however, set the style for the whole document using the Bulletpoints and Numbering option in the Format drop down menu on the Menu Bar. This gives you wider options – including symbols and customised pictures and icons.

It can be a trap for the unwary. Although the ‘tick’ symbol, for example, can look effective when used appropriately, it will never be a good default choice. Imagine the mixed message if a ‘tick’ is used to itemise ‘Things you should never do’.

From a technical perspective, some symbols, pictures and icons might not survive conversion into other formats and will make your piece look unprofessional. Case in point: the ‘tick’ symbol I originally included above did not appear as I expected in this piece.

When to use numbered or lettered lists

Obviously, when there is a specific number of items, you should use numbered lists

Example:

Here are four useful tips for more effective meetings:

  1. Have a clear, succinct agenda
  2. Invite only those who really need to be there
  3. Set, and stick to, time limits for each item 
  4. Read SMART Meetings For Smart Managers.

The items might relate to individual points, ideas or scenarios; in a summary section, they might refer to later Chapters or Sections.

If, for some reason, your numbered list has to be further divided, you might choose ‘roman numeral subdivisions: i) ii) iii) iv) ….

Lettered lists: a) b) c) …. are often appropriate alternatives, especially if content you are introducing or summarising is organised by letters (Section A, Part B, etc). 

Some writers choose lettered lists by default, as a personal preference. Beware, though: it’s awkward to refer later to ‘the first point’ or ‘the second strategy’ if the list has used letters instead of numbers.

Lettered lists can also be subdivisions of numbered lists.

Finally, consider consistency.

Whatever style you select, make sure it’s applied deliberately and thoughtfully throughout your text. The real art of the dot point list is that it’s done ‘artfully’ and purposefully.

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