Thursday, May 03, 2012
Lists: we love to read them (especially when reading online) but sometimes hate to make them ourselves because we worry about whether we’re using the right style and punctuation. I’m here to simplify things and make lists something to look forward to writing.
First things first: lists replace proper sentences—and so relieve yourself of the nagging sense that you have to treat them like sentences. Lists’ main task is to make words pop and ideas easy to absorb. The most important thing to achieve with them is to make them simple and uncluttered by punctuation, and to let them breathe via a little white space.
Always include a lead-in sentence or phrase to start a list, followed by a colon, then a line of white space.
Here’s an example of the simplest kind of list you could make (notice lowercased first words and no punctuation at the end of the list items):
Remember to pack:
- an umbrella
- snack food
Now let’s step it up a notch and imagine your list items are going to be longer phrases/sentences. In this case, cap the first word and stick a period at the end of each list item:
There were several reasons for the decision:
- The budget wouldn’t allow for additional labourers in the summer.
- The Board was uncomfortable contracting out the work to a second firm.
- The building plans had yet to be finalized.
Happily, numbered lists (whether list items are short or long) follow the same reasoning as the second example above: cap the first word and stick a period at the end of each list item. Therefore ...
When I asked him to prioritize his wish list, he provided me the following:
- A five-year plan that would see him debt free in 2015.
- A cottage in the surrounding area.
- Two vacations a year.
All of this is based on The Chicago Manual of Style guidelines. There are other ways of doing lists, but I say keep it simple and consistent (which the above guidelines are) and you’ll be more likely to both use lists and make them attractive and helpful to the reader.