February 24, 2018

6 tips for writing lists

People look at 70% of lists they encounter online

Think of your bulleted lists as the celebrities of your blog posts, webpages and other pieces.

6 tips for writing lists

Short list Lists draw readers, increase understanding and get shared — but only if you present them well. Image by Hope House Press

Lists “are to the web reader’s eye what Brad Pitt is to the paparazzi,” say Kara Pernice, Kathryn Whitenton and Jakob Nielsen, the authors of How People Read on the Web. “You just can’t get enough.”

Indeed, according to Pernice et al., web visitors look at 70% of the bulleted lists they encounter.

Why lists?

Here’s a short list of reasons to write lists. Lists: …

6 steps to presenting lists

So what are best practices for writing lists?

1. List lists. If you have a series of three or more items in a paragraph or sentence, make it a list. Take this information, from an FDA page on produce safety:

When preparing any fresh produce, begin with clean hands. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water before and after preparation. Cut away any damaged or bruised areas on fresh fruits and vegetables before preparing and/or eating. Throw away any produce that looks rotten. Wash all produce thoroughly under running water before preparing and/or eating, including produce grown at home or bought from a grocery store or farmers’ market. Washing fruits and vegetables with soap, detergent or commercial produce wash is not recommended. Even if you do not plan to eat the skin, it is still important to wash produce first so dirt and bacteria are not transferred from the surface when peeling or cutting produce. Scrub firm produce, such as melons and cucumbers, with a clean produce brush. After washing, dry produce with a clean cloth towel or paper towel to further reduce bacteria that may be present on the surface

One way to make it easier to read is to simply hit Return between steps:

When preparing any fresh produce, begin with clean hands. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water before and after preparation.

Cut away any damaged or bruised areas on fresh fruits and vegetables before preparing and/or eating. Throw away any produce that looks rotten.

Wash all produce thoroughly under running water before preparing and/or eating, including produce grown at home or bought from a grocery store or farmers’ market. Washing fruits and vegetables with soap, detergent or commercial produce wash is not recommended.

Even if you do not plan to eat the skin, it is still important to wash produce first so dirt and bacteria are not transferred from the surface when peeling or cutting produce.

Scrub firm produce, such as melons and cucumbers, with a clean produce brush.

After washing, dry produce with a clean cloth towel or paper towel to further reduce bacteria that may be present on the surface.

2. Don’t drop the bullet. While web visitors look at 70% of the lists they encounter, according to Pernice, et al., they look at only 55% of the lists without bullets. So add bullets:

  • When preparing any fresh produce, begin with clean hands. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water before and after preparation.
  • Cut away any damaged or bruised areas on fresh fruits and vegetables before preparing and/or eating. Throw away any produce that looks rotten.
  • Wash all produce thoroughly under running water before preparing and/or eating, including produce grown at home or bought from a grocery store or farmers’ market. Washing fruits and vegetables with soap, detergent or commercial produce wash is not recommended.
  • Even if you do not plan to eat the skin, it is still important to wash produce first so dirt and bacteria are not transferred from the surface when peeling or cutting produce.
  • Scrub firm produce, such as melons and cucumbers, with a clean produce brush.
  • After washing, dry produce with a clean cloth towel or paper towel to further reduce bacteria that may be present on the surface.

“A few tiny dots attract the eye and can make a complex concept understandable,” writes Hoa Loranger, vice president at Nielsen Norman Group.

3. Show the parts. But simply adding bullets doesn’t make a list scannable. Add bold-faced lead-ins so skimmers can see at a glance what the items on the list are:

  • When preparing any fresh produce, begin with clean hands. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water before and after preparation.
  • Cut away any damaged or bruised areas on fresh fruits and vegetables before preparing and/or eating. Throw away any produce that looks rotten.
  • Wash all produce thoroughly under running water before preparing and/or eating, including produce grown at home or bought from a grocery store or farmers’ market. Washing fruits and vegetables with soap, detergent or commercial produce wash is not recommended.
  • Even if you do not plan to eat the skin, it is still important to wash produce first so dirt and bacteria are not transferred from the surface when peeling or cutting produce.
  • Scrub firm produce, such as melons and cucumbers, with a clean produce brush.
  • After washing, dry produce with a clean cloth towel or paper towel to further reduce bacteria that may be present on the surface.

4. Show the whole. OK. Now I know what the items on the list are. But what is this a list of? Add a subhead so skimmers can see the whole as well as the parts:

How to wash produce

  • When preparing any fresh produce, begin with clean hands. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water before and after preparation.
  • Cut away any damaged or bruised areas on fresh fruits and vegetables before preparing and/or eating. Throw away any produce that looks rotten.
  • Wash all produce thoroughly under running water before preparing and/or eating, including produce grown at home or bought from a grocery store or farmers’ market. Washing fruits and vegetables with soap, detergent or commercial produce wash is not recommended.
  • Even if you do not plan to eat the skin, it is still important to wash produce first so dirt and bacteria are not transferred from the surface when peeling or cutting produce.
  • Scrub firm produce, such as melons and cucumbers, with a clean produce brush.
  • After washing, dry produce with a clean cloth towel or paper towel to further reduce bacteria that may be present on the surface.

Now this list is a free-standing information package. Flippers and skimmers can get the gist of that message without reading every word.

5. Introduce the list. Now add an intro to set up the list.

How to wash produce

To make sure your produce is free of pesticides and bacteria:

  • When preparing any fresh produce, begin with clean hands. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water before and after preparation.
  • Cut away any damaged or bruised areas on fresh fruits and vegetables before preparing and/or eating. Throw away any produce that looks rotten.
  • Wash all produce thoroughly under running water before preparing and/or eating, including produce grown at home or bought from a grocery store or farmers’ market. Washing fruits and vegetables with soap, detergent or commercial produce wash is not recommended.
  • Even if you do not plan to eat the skin, it is still important to wash produce first so dirt and bacteria are not transferred from the surface when peeling or cutting produce.
  • Scrub firm produce, such as melons and cucumbers, with a clean produce brush.
  • After washing, dry produce with a clean cloth towel or paper towel to further reduce bacteria that may be present on the surface.

6. Make the list parallel and tighten it. Bonus points for creating a verb-based list.

How to wash produce

To make sure your produce is free of pesticides and bacteria:

  • Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water before and after washing fruit.
  • Cut away damaged or bruised areas. Throw away any produce that looks rotten.
  • Wash produce under running water — even if you don’t plan to eat the skin — and regardless of whether you grew it at home, bought it at a grocery store or picked it up at the farmer’s market. Do not wash produce with soap, detergent or commercial produce wash.
  • Scrub firm produce, such as melons and cucumbers, with a clean produce brush.
  • Dry produce with a clean cloth towel or paper towel to further reduce bacteria on your work surface.

Don’t overdo lists.

One reason lists are so effective is that they stand out.

Overusing formatting is “like wearing your best cocktail dress every day to the movies, work, the supermarket, and out to walk the dog,” write Pernice et al.. “By the time you wear it to a party, you and everyone else, including the dog, are sick of it.”

List everything, and you might as well list nothing.

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Sources: Hoa Loranger, “7 Tips for Presenting Bulleted Lists in Digital Content,” Nielsen Norman Group, April 9, 2017

Kara Pernice, Kathryn Whitenton, and Jakob Nielsen; How People Read on the Web: The Eyetracking Evidence; Nielsen Norman Group; Sept. 10, 2013

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