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Bullet Points: When and How to Use Them in Your Writing

I have a Love/Hate Relationship with Bullet Points.

  • There are many writers who

  • For whatever reason believe

  • That the bullet point is

  • The perfect way to emphasize

  • Everything they write

  • And they use it frequently

  • To the point of annoyance

Get it? Now there is a time and place for using bullet points effectively, which I will explain, but it has become an overused and, dare I say it, cop-out way of writing. It is replacing the use of eloquent transitional phrasing, which can express an author’s intent in moving the reader from point to point. Let’s dig a little deeper into this concept and see where it takes us!

Why Bullet Points

Bullet points mean a list: a grouping of things. When you handwrite your grocery list or a list of to-do items, maybe you put little dots next to them. That’s your bullet-point list. And yes, in writing maybe they are longer than just a word or two, maybe it’s a phrase or even closer to a whole sentence, but it’s still just a list.

So, when to use bullet points in writing? Here, let me show you:

  • In non-fiction, when listing ingredients in a cookbook

  • In non-fiction, when listing steps to a process

  • In non-fiction, when listing ways to use a product

  • In non-fiction, when listing effects or side-effects of a medicine

  • In non-fiction, when listing benefits of a course to take

  • In fiction, hardly ever

See what I did there? Bullets are explanatory; they are a way of condensing a lot of information in a short space to make it easier for the reader to understand. But in fiction writing, you want all the pretty words. You want to use all the descriptive language and colorful imagery to help the reader’s imagination soar, so there’s not going to be much need for bullet points in a fiction piece.

Okay, I did think of one instance:

  • Itemizing a list of your main characters charges when they get arrested

There, feel better?

For those who can’t imagine writing a piece without bullet points, and feel that it will just look too overwhelming and copy heavy, don’t worry. The universe has provided a solution. It’s called the paragraph. Think through each concept or few concepts and block them off into smaller paragraphs. It will be easy on the eyes and convey your message just the same. So maybe take the sixth and seventh set of bullet points in your piece and give that a try!

Tips for Using Bullet Points

And finally, as a friendly gesture to my bullet-point-dedicated readers, here’s a list of tips for best practices for bullet points:

  • Use a colon at the end of the sentence that introduces the bulleted list.

  • If the list is complete sentences, they should be capitalized and end with punctuation.

  • If the list isn’t complete sentences, they do not need to be capitalized or end with punctuation.

  • Make sure your lists are of similar types of items and parts of speech (i.e., don’t mix sentences and phrases; keep sentences the same length).

And there you have it, my love/hate relationship with bullet points. Go forth and bullet wisely, dear readers!

For more writing and editing tips like this, click here.

Happy Reading!


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