Technical Writing Tip: Working with Lists

Lists are a handy way to present information in a clear and concise manner. As a technical editor with ASCENT, I often employ lists as a way to make information easier to read and to break up large chunks of text. Here are a few tips for working with lists. 

Introducing a List 

If you caught my recent blog post on colons, you’ll know that using a colon is a great way to introduce a list. The lead-in sentence should introduce the list (implied question) and the list should provide the required information (answering the question). Sometimes a colon won’t be necessary, depending on the structure of the paragraph, but remember that one should be used if your lead-in sentence uses “as follows” or “the following.” 

Something to keep in mind: If the list is short (only two or three entries), consider whether a list is even necessary. You may be able to run the list into the sentence to save space if you don’t need the list for added emphasis or clarity. 

Punctuating a List 

When considering how to punctuate your list, there are a few options, depending on the contents and structure of your list. 

If your list comprises full sentences, it is common to end each bullet with a period (or other terminal punctuation), just as you would with any other sentence; however, this can vary by style guide, with some calling for no periods even if entries are full sentences. If your list entries are sentence fragments or single words, no terminal punctuation is needed.  

Full sentences (can choose to use periods) 

You can specify the point using one of two methods: 

  • Select a point on the screen with the cursor. 

  • Type coordinates (when it is requesting point entry) in the form X,Y. 

Sentence fragments (no periods needed) 

Click on one of the following to set the required isometric drawing environment: 

  • Isoplane Left 

  • Isoplane Top 

  • Isoplane Right 

If you have a mix of the two, first consider whether the list should be rewritten so entries are parallel (we’ll address this in the next section). If you choose to maintain the mix, pick an option for the terminal punctuation, and apply it consistently – you shouldn’t have some entries ending in a period and some not. 

You can also choose to write and punctuate a list as a continuation of the lead-in sentence, as in the following example: 

Almost every setting that can be changed in the software is stored as a system variable, such as: 

  • the default fillet radius (filletrad), 

  • the size of dimension text (dimtxt), and 

  • the way File dialog boxes display (filedia). 

In this example, the terminal punctuation for each bullet leads into the next, with only the final entry receiving the period. Also note the “and” at the end of the second bullet to lead into the last (and that it comes after the comma). It should also be mentioned that in this case, the bullets each begin with a lowercase letter instead of a capital (whereas in lists where entries are full sentences, they should always begin with a capital; with sentence fragments or single words, the choice is yours or your style guide’s – just be consistent!). 

Using Parallel Construction 

The entries in a list should be parallel, which means they should mirror each other in their construction. In the following list, the entries are not consistent: 

  • Understand the AutoCAD workspace and user interface 

  • Basic drawing, editing, and viewing tools 

  • Organizing drawing objects on layers 

  • Reusable symbols (blocks) 

  • Prepare a layout to be plotted 

  • Adding text, hatching, and dimensions 

In the above example, different sentence styles and constructions have been used: some sentences start with a gerund (a verbal noun ending in -ing), some start with a verb, and some don’t use either. This can be cleaned up so that the list is more cohesive, as follows: 

  • Understanding the AutoCAD workspace and user interface 

  • Using basic drawing, editing, and viewing tools 

  • Organizing drawing objects on layers 

  • Using reusable symbols (blocks) 

  • Preparing a layout to be plotted 

  • Adding text, hatching, and dimensions 

In this example, all entries start with a gerund and use the same basic construction. Using the same sentence structure for each bullet makes the list easier to read and understand.  

Lists can be a helpful tool for presenting various types of information. While I’ve used bulleted lists in the above examples, these tips can be applied to other types of lists as well. 

I hope you find these tips helpful the next time you are using lists in your writing! 

About the Author

Breanne MacDonald

Technical Editor<br><br>Fueled by her meticulous nature, an eye for detail, and a love of books, Breanne has been an editor for over 10 years. She has been a technical editor with ASCENT since 2019, and outside the office she is an avid volunteer with the Editors’ Association of Canada. Breanne holds a Bachelor of Arts from Wilfrid Laurier University and a certificate in publishing from Ryerson University.

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