Online Technical Writing: Lists



Lists are useful because they emphasize certain information in regular text. When you see a list of three or four items strung out vertically on the page, rather than in normal paragraph format, you naturally notice it more and are likely to pay more attention to it. Certain types of lists also make for easier reading. For example, in instructions, it is a big help for each step to be numbered and separate from the preceding or following steps. Lists also create more white space and spread out the text so that pages don't seem like solid walls of words.

Like headings, the various types of lists are an important feature of professional technical writing: they help readers understand, remember, and review key points; they help readers follow a sequence of actions or events; and they break up long stretches of straight text.

Your task for this chapter is to learn about the different types of lists and their uses and to learn the specific format and style for lists used in this technical writing course.

Note: Students enrolled in Online Technical Writing are ecouraged to take the reading quiz on this chapter. (Anybody else is welcome to try it as well.)

Lists: General Guidelines

In professional technical-writing contexts, you must use a specific style of lists, like the one presented in this chapter. This list style is standard, required format in this course. If you want to use a different style, get with your instructor.

Guidelines for Specific Types of Lists

It's difficult to state guidelines on choosing between the various kinds of lists, but here's a stab at it:

Common Problems with Lists

Problems with lists usually include the following:

Format for Lists

Use the following for specific details on the capitalization, typography (bold, underlining, different fonts, different types sizes), and spacing for each type of list.

In-sentence lists. Use these guidelines for in-sentence lists:

  1. Use a colon to introduce the list items only if a complete sentence precedes the list. In this problem version, the colon breaks right into the middle of a sentence (how dare it!):

    Problem:   For this project, you need: tape, scissors, and
               white-out.
    
    Revision:  For this project, you need tape, scissors, and
               white-out.
    
  2. Use both opening and closing parentheses on the list item numbers or letters: (a) item, (b) item, etc.
  3. Use either regular Arabic numbers or lowercase letters within the parentheses, but use them consistently. (Do not punctuate either with periods). Use lowercase for the text of in-sentence lists items, except when regular capitalization rules require caps.
  4. Punctuate the list items with commas if they are not complete sentences; with semicolons, if they are complete sentences.
  5. Use the same spacing for in-sentence lists as in regular non-list text.
  6. Whenever possible, make the in-sentence list occur at the end of the sentence. Never place an in-sentence list introduced by a colon anywhere but at the end of the sentence, as in this example:
     
    Problem:   The following items: tape, scissors, and white-out
               are needed for this project.
    
    Revision:  The following items are needed for this project: tape,
               scissors, and white-out.
    
Figure 5-1. Examples of in-sentence lists.

Simple vertical lists. Use these guidelines for simple vertical lists:

  1. Introduce the list with a lead-in sentence (the lead-in need not be a complete sentence; the list items can complete the lead-in). Punctuate the lead-in with a colon.
  2. Use simple vertical lists when the list items do not need to be emphasized, and are listed vertically merely for ease of reading.
  3. Use sentence-style capitalization on list items.
  4. Begin run-over lines under the text of the list item, not the regular left margin; singlespace list items that are two to three lines long (but use doublespace for lengthy list items).
  5. Use regular doublespacing between the surrounding text and the list; doublespace between list items.
  6. Indent the list items 3 to 5 spaces (start the item on the third or fifth column).
  7. Punctuate list items only if they are complete sentences or verb phrases that complete the sentence begun by the lead-in (and use periods in these two cases).
  8. Watch out for lists with more than 6 or 8 list items; for long lists, look for ways to subdivide or consolidate. Avoid single-item lists.
  9. When possible, omit articles (a, an, the) from the beginning of list items.
Figure 5-2. Example of a simple vertical list (no numbers or bullets).

Bulleted vertical lists. Use these guidelines for bulleted vertical lists:

  1. Introduce the list with a lead-in sentence (the lead-in need not be a complete sentence; the list items can complete the lead-in). Punctuate the lead-in sentence with a colon.
  2. Use bulleted lists when the list items are in no necessary order and when you want to emphasize the items in the list.
  3. Use asterisks or hyphens if you have no access to an actual bullet.
  4. Use sentence-style capitalization on list items.
  5. Begin run-over lines under the text of the list item, not the bullet; singlespace list items that are two to three lines long (but use doublespace for lengthy list items).
  6. Use regular doublespacing between the surrounding text and the bulleted list; doublespace between list items.
  7. Indent the list items 3 to 5 spaces (start the bullet on the third or fifth column). Leave 1 space between the bullet and the start of the list item.
  8. Punctuate bulleted list items only if they are complete sentences or verb phrases that complete the sentence begun by the lead-in (and use periods in these two cases).
  9. Watch out for bulleted lists with more than 6 or 8 list items; for long bulleted lists, look for ways to subdivide or consolidate. Avoid single-item bulleted lists.
  10. When possible, omit articles (a, an, the) from the beginning of list items.
Figure 5-3. Example of a bulleted vertical list (items not in any required order).

Numbered vertical lists. Use these guidelines for numbered vertical lists:

  1. Introduce the list with a lead-in sentence (the lead-in need not be a complete sentence; the list items can complete the lead-in). Punctuate the lead-in sentence with a colon.
  2. Use numbered lists when the list items are in a required order (for example, chronological).
  3. Type the number followed by a period; do not use parentheses on the number.
  4. Use sentence-style capitalization on list items.
  5. Begin run-over lines under the text of the list item, not the number; singlespace list items that are two to three lines long (but use doublespace for lengthy list items).
  6. Use regular doublespacing between the surrounding text and the numbered list; doublespace between list items.
  7. Indent the list items 3 to 5 spaces (start the number on the third or fifth column). Leave 1 space between the period after the number and the start of the list item.
  8. Punctuate numbered list items only if they are complete sentences or verb phrases that complete the sentence begun by the lead-in (and use periods in these two cases).
  9. Watch out for numbered lists with more than 8 or 10 list items; for long numbered lists, look for ways to subdivide or consolidate. Avoid single-item numbered lists.
  10. When possible, omit articles (a, an, the) from the beginning of list items.
Figure 5-4. Example of a numbered vertical list (items are in a required order).

Two-column lists. Use these guidelines for two-column lists:

  1. Use two-column lists when you have a series of paired items, for example, terms and definitions.
  2. Introduce the list with a lead-in sentence that is a complete sentence. Punctuate the lead-in sentence with a colon.
  3. Column headings are optional; if used, align them to the left margin of the text of the columns.
  4. Indent the left column 3 to 5 spaces; leave at least 3 spaces between the right margin of the left column and the left margin of the right column.
  5. Use sentence-style capitalization for both columns.
  6. Punctuate items in the columns only if they are complete sentences.
  7. Doublespace between the list items; but singlespace within the items.
  8. Left-align both columns.
  9. When possible, omit articles (a, an, the) from the beginning of list items.
Figure 5-5. Example of a two-column list (pairs of list items). Not illustrated here, column headings are often used to indicate the contents of the two columns (for example, here it might be "Term" as the heading for the column 1 and "Definition" for column 2).

Lists with run-in headings. One last little variation on lists is the vertical list with run-in headings or labels at the beginning of the items. This format is used extensively in this book. It's like another way of doing a two-column list. Two-column lists can be difficult--you have to get the spacing right between the two columns and reformat every run-over line in the second column.

You can use bold or italics for the actual run-in heading (italics is used in the figure).

Figure 5-6. Example of a vertical list with run-in headings. Very useful for indicating the contents of each item in a lengthy vertical list when a two-column list is not quite right for the situation.

Other Formatting Issues

Here are some additional points to consider concerning lists.

Singlespaced Text. All of the examples and discussion in this chapter are based on doublespaced text. For singlespaced text, use your document-design "eye" to decide on spacing. Leave either one or two blank lines between running text and lists--depending on what looks best to you. (And, of course, both running text and the text of the lists would be singlespaced.)

One area that is wide open for individual judgment is whether to add space between vertical list items (loose format) or to keep them singlespaced (compact format). Again, use your document-design eye on this. If the items are several lines each and if there are numerous items, the loose format may be more readable. Whichever you use, be consistent with it.

Designing Your Own Lists. Once you start looking around at how lists are formatted in different publications, you'll notice a lot of variability. There is no one "right" design for each type of list. Indentation, capitalization, spacing practices all vary enormously. Use the formats shown in this chapter for this technical writing class. If you want to some other format, get with your instructor.


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This information is provided and maintained by David A. McMurrey. For information on use, customization, or copies, e-mail hcexres@io.com.