Respect the List

As part of my work, I help people rewrite the content for their website. When combing through the content of a website, I often come across content shoved into a list, like this:

To be eligible for the Franken scholarship, students must:

  • Be a U.S. citizen; Be eligible for federally-funded financial aid
  • Be enrolled full-time in a degree program. Full-time is a minimum of 12 units, determined fifteen days into the semester
    • If a student is enrolled in less than 12 units, the Franken scholarship must be billed back
    • If the scholarship is reduced, it can not be reinstated at a later date
  • Students must maintain a 2.0 cumulative GPA. Transfer students may have their initial eligibility based on units from their previous institution

What’s wrong with this? Lists are supposed to make content easy to read, right? But somehow this content isn’t easy to read at all, it’s a real pain.

But where did this list go wrong? When a reader encounters a list within a body of text, they expect the list to abide by certain rules. But when a list violates this implicit contract, it’s not a list, it’s just a series of staccato paragraphs surrounded by unnecessary margins and bullet images.

So what makes a good list? Let’s talk about it.

Keep Lists Short

In general, a writer includes a list to provide a quick summary of the major points of a topic. However, if the list includes a large number of items or the text within each item is too long, the list is no longer fulfilling its purpose. In other words, what’s the point of an outline if the outline is almost as long as the source content?

As a general rule, try to keep the number of items within a list to around five and keep the text in each list item on one line. Of course, I don’t have any research to back this up and there are exceptions to every rule, but we have to start somewhere.

Keep List Items Consistent

Let’s look at another example:

To make a sandwich, you’ll need:

  • 2 slices of bread
  • 1 leaf of lettuce
  • 1 Slice of Cheese. Cheddar is a nice, basic choice, but you should also try spicing things up with Pepper Jack!
  • Some tomato
  • Lunch meat (not necessary if you want a vegetarian sandwich)

It’s really difficult to grasp the overall structure and pattern of the list: it’s a jumble of choppy, discordant sentences. Within a list, each list item should have a similar format. This provides the list with a patterned flow that will make it easier to read and understand:

To make a sandwich, you’ll need:

  • 2 slices of bread
  • 1 leaf of lettuce
  • 1 slice of cheese
  • 2 slices of tomato
  • 1 piece of lunch meat (optional)

Now the list is much easier to read; the reader knows what to expect moving from one list item to another. You may scoff: but what about that whole cheese aside? You completely omitted it! Ask yourself: does someone skimming your list care about that? If it’s so important, put it in a later paragraph or maybe, after streamlining the list, you’ve realized the content wasn’t so important after all.

List Items Should Be Atomic

Each list item should focus on one thing. There’s no exception to this. This one thing could be anything—a book title, a programming tip, a color—but each list item should only contain one of these things.

Avoid Nested Lists

Of course there’s going to be exceptions to this rule, but avoid putting a list inside another list. This is like having two conversations at once. It’s confusing. Why not put that inner list into its own list and reference it from the outer list?

Fit Content to Lists

Finally, remember that the mere presence of a list does not make content easier to read and understand. If a particular piece of content won’t abide by the above rules, then rewrite the content. If you still can’t make the content work as a list, then maybe it shouldn’t be a list. Really, there’s nothing wrong with a series of concise paragraphs.

If readers were having a trouble parsing your website’s content, shoving black circles next to that same content won’t make it any easier. Respect the list.