Best Practices for Bullet Points

The days of long sentences in long paragraphs are long gone. Our readers need to retrieve information fast. An excellent way to help them do this is to lay out information in bulleted lists.

Definition: A "bullet point" is an item introduced by a dot ("bullet") or a similar icon, like this:

  • This is an example of a bullet point.

Here are 10 tips for creating crisp, clear bullet points. Use bullet points to list features, steps, or tips, like this list.

  1. Emphasize the beginning of the bullet point, as in this list, when the first few words capture the main idea. That way, readers can skim easily. Use bold type, italics, or underlining for emphasis.
  2. Make bullet points consistent in structure. For example, make all of them sentences or fragments or questions. However, if you have two sets of bullet points in a document, you don’t need to make them consistent with each other–just within themselves.
  3. Punctuate bullets consistently. That is, if one bullet ends with a period (full stop), end all with a period, following these rules:
      a. If all bullets are sentences, end each one with a period (full stop).
      b. If all bullets are phrases or fragments, use no end punctuation.
  4. Avoid ending bullet points with semicolons. Semicolons have been used that way, but the style seems old-fashioned in today’s crisp documents. Note: A semicolon looks like this: ;
  5. Avoid making bullet points so long that they look like paragraphs. Three lines is a reasonable maximum length.
  6. Number bullet points when you have many–more than five or so. That way your readers can easily track the bullets and refer to them.
  7. Avoid using transition words and phrases such as "secondly" or "another point." Such linking phrases are unnecessary, and they slow down readers. 
  8. Be sure bullet points are related, especially if you have a lot of them. When you have many, you may need two sets instead of one. For example, if your bullets contain a blend of advantages and opportunities, break them into two lists, with one labeled Advantages and another labeled Opportunities.
  9. Avoid bullet points when you want to build rapport or deal with a sensitive issue. Bullets communicate efficiency rather than warmth.
  10. Lay out bullet points cleanly. Avoid a variety of fonts or a mix of margins.

Besides helping your readers skim for information, bullet points make life easier for you as a writer. With bullet points, you can use simple structures and punctuation, and you don’t need to worry about how your sentences flow from one item to the next. This post (the piece you are reading now) would have been much longer and more challenging to write if I had composed it as an essay.

I wrote this post because one of my recent visitors to this blog was searching for "rules for bullet points." Although the topic may not be exciting, it’s important. Our readers need documents and messages that are easy to skim for information.

Did you find this one easy to skim?

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Other search spellings: bulletted, defenition, bullet-point

12 COMMENTS

  1. If the bullets are not punctuated in between, do you place a period at the end of the last bullet, if the end of the sentence is there?

  2. Rob, reference books differ on this question. “The Gregg Reference Manual” capitalizes all bullets. “The Chicago Manual of Style” capitalizes bulleted fragments only when they are in numbered lists. So if you were to use fragments with simple bullets (no numbers), “Chicago” would advise you to make them lower case.

    I follow “Gregg” because I like the consistency of all bullet points being capitalized.

  3. Here is the case: A bullet point includes 2 sentences, this being the only exception along all the other bullet points that would be fragments. Can I keep this bullet point without a period at the end for consistency purpose?
    One example is:
    – Quick-drying, water-based ink resists smearing. Writing won’t bleed through paper
    Can I leave this bullet point without a period at the end if all the other bullet points do not end with one?
    Thanks much!

  4. Your two-sentence bullet will seem weird without a period at the end, especially with a period between its two sentences. You could try to make the bullet into a fragment, something like this:

    Quick-drying water-based ink–less smearing, no bleed-through writing

    I’m wondering why all the others are fragments and this one isn’t. I would prefer consistency.

  5. Hi!
    Can a bullet point includes just one sentence or phrase? Or does it has to include at least 2 sentences or phrases?

  6. Emanuel, people argue over this question. My view is that using a bullet is a design decision. If you have just one point you want to set off in a bullet, fine–use just one bullet. Other people, however, feel that bullets should be reserved for lists and that “list” means more than one item. I believe a list can have just one item–my shopping list or to-do list, for example.

  7. Hi,
    Is it ever possible to begin bullet points with small case letters (e.g. if they end the sentence which introduces the bullet points)?

    Thanks for your help.

  8. Anna, capitalization depends on which style you follow. I follow “The Gregg Reference Manual” and the “Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications.” Both of them capitalize all bullet points. “The Chicago Manual of Style,” however, capitalizes bullet points only in certain circumstances. If you followed “Chicago,” you would not capitalize list items that complete the introductory words.

    Hope that helps.

    Lynn

  9. How would you recommend incorporating exclamation points into bulleted lists? It seems appropriate to include them even in fragmented lists that have no end punctuation on other lines. What is your sense?

  10. Geoff, it is hard to imagine using an exclamation at the end of a bullet point, if the other points don’t have end punctuation. Maybe in parentheses?

    Lynn

Comments are closed.