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Do Bullet Points Belong in Letters?

This month I worked with a team of people who often write letters to the public. Their letters include a variety of helpful details. 

When you have a lot of information to communicate in a letter, do you use traditional paragraphs only? Or do you add headings, bullet points, and other kinds of formatting where they make sense? 

My client's team was hesitant to add formatting. They wondered: Aren't paragraphs the only building blocks of letters? 

What do you think? 

Imagine that you are an accountant (my clients were not). You have a quick message to send to a client who needs to return a refund check to the IRS (Internal Revenue Service, the agency in charge of income taxes in the United States).

Which of these two letter is better? Why? 

Message 1
Dear Mr. Smith:

Please find enclosed the letter to be sent by you to the IRS regarding the refund check you mistakenly received from them. Please write “VOID” on the signature line on the back of the refund check. Sign the letter and enclose it with the voided refund check, 2014 voucher, and signed letter in the enclosed envelope and mail it to the IRS.

If you have any questions, please contact me at [phone number and email address].


Message 2
Dear Mr. Smith:

Enclosed are a letter and a 2014 Form 1040-ES voucher for you to send to the IRS with the refund check you received mistakenly from them. Also enclosed is an envelope for your use.

Please take the following steps:

  1. Write “VOID” on the signature line on the back of the check.
  2. Sign the letter. Enclose it with the voided refund check and the voucher in the envelope.
  3. Stamp and mail the envelope to the IRS.

If you have any questions, please contact me at [phone number and email address].


Yes, the two short letters are different in a few ways. One important difference is the list of steps. Do you think the list will help Mr. Smith? 

I use headings and bullet points to help readers scan messages and find what they need quickly–even in letters. Such formatting highlights the content for readers. A heading at the beginning of each paragraph, for example, signals readers about what the paragraph covers. Consider these helpful run-in headings in a letter of agreement:

Responsibilities: We will provide a continental breakfast, an LCD projector (with cables), an easel with a flip chart pad, markers, name tents, and a class roster. You are responsible for bringing a laptop computer for your presentation, along with all participant materials, which will include a Life Skills Inventory and a 30-page handout for each participant.

Payment: We agree to pay you $1950 for facilitating the workshop and $30 per participant for materials and the Inventory. You will bill us after you complete the session, and we will pay your invoice within 10 business days.

Rescheduling: If we must reschedule the workshop for any reason, we may do so with no additional fee if we notify you by June 28. After June 28, we will pay a fee of $550 to cancel or reschedule the workshop.

Do you use bolding, bullet points, numbered lists, headings, and other formatting in business letters? Would you like to?

Syntax Training 

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

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