Friday, December 3, 2010

Bulleted Lists that Make Sense

Where would healthcare textbooks be without bulleted lists?

Nowhere, that's where.

[caption id="attachment_664" align="alignright" width="150" caption="Wanna see some white space?"][/caption]

Bulleted lists are a mainstay of our industry and for good reason. They provide key information in a quick-look format. They help break up paragraphs of text. And they provide a bit of white space on the page. White space is a publishing term for, literally, the white of the page and how much of it shows around the text and images. The white space around bullets, which tend to end at varying widths, helps keep the reader's eye engaged in the page.

When you're writing a bulleted list make sure the sequence of bullets makes sense. Bullets shouldn't be just thrown onto the page willy-nilly, as you think of them, they should be as carefully constructed as everything else you write.

That said, here are four ways to sequence a bulleted list.

  • Alphabetical. This format makes sense for items that need no specific sequence, such as a list of authors or symptoms. Sometimes an alphabetical list would make it easier for the reader to find a particular item. Alphabetized lists are best used when the bullet points are short. The longer the bullets, the less useful an alpha list.

  • Importance. Anytime the items in a list vary by their clinical importance, the list itself can help make that prioritization clear. For instance, adverse reactions are commonly listed by importance, with the most important being first or last, depending on intent. Example:

  • Frequency of occurrence. Like importance, frequency of occurrence can also prove helpful when building a list. Generally this kind of list should be built from the least common to the most common. Example:

  • Length of bullets. Use this format then you have a list of bullets each of which is no longer than the width of a column and when none of the other methods makes sense. Example:

By the way, I developed the list above using the Importance format. Wheeeee!