How to Use Lists in Your Writing

By eContent Pro on Nov 30, 2017
How to Use Lists in Your Writing

There are many different styles and formatting expectations when writing academically, but keeping your prose organized isn’t one of those variations; it’s a predominant rule of thumb. One of the most commonly used but often poorly executed methods of presenting text in a structured way is using lists.

It’s a method that’s being used more frequently and looked upon more favorably because people tend to skim more than they read word-for-word. Some publishers have clear guidelines for creating lists in your text, but generally, as long as you're consistent throughout the document, following our advice hereafter for using lists in your text can help keep your manuscripts organized without puzzling your readers.

Formatting and Usage

  • If possible, keep the shortest listed item first. This will make your content easier to read, and it’s simply more attractive on the page.
  • Use Microsoft Word’s bulleting and numbering feature when possible. It’s programmed to help you create faultless lists, allowing you to maintain consistency all around.
  • Use singe, not double, space between lines of text in your lists. Contrary to the assumption of many writers, larger spacing doesn’t usually mean that the text will be easier to read.
  • Keep each point approximately the same length. Shorter items will become lost amongst more paragraph-like chunks of text. We recommend sticking to one to three lines. Consider reviewing our tips on practicing conciseness.
  • Avoid using colons or semicolons. Stick with periods at the end of each point. This will produce more of an individual emphasis, while the list as a whole is still cohesive.
  • If one item finishes as a complete sentence, then punctuate all listed items. First words should then all be capitalized. When completed, go back through your list to make sure all periods were placed. If your points are listed as fragments, periods aren’t necessary, but be sure that the absence of punctuation is consistent.
  • Save your most pivotal point of discussion for last. Readers will continue with more confidence in the substance of your manuscript, and it will help boost the credibility of your paper’s central argument or reasoning.

Be Aware of All Your Lists

There are actually four different types of lists that writers can use, and most of us use these in different ways without being conscious of it:

  1. Run-In Lists: These are discoursed within the paragraphs of your writing and are usually separated with semicolons and initiated with a colon. Here’s an example: My dog has three hobbies: (1) chewing his squeaky toy; (2) begging for treats; and (3) running around in circles at the dog park.
  2. Numbered Lists: Just like this list, a numbered list is used to sequence items and explain to the reader various points of discussion within the context of a specific amount or arrangement.
  3. Bulleted Lists: These are the most commonly used lists. Anytime one intends to list items without any particular order of presentation, a bulleted list will work great.
  4. Reference Lists: This type of list sometimes gets misconstrued as a numbered list, but its purpose expands beyond that. In reference lists, you’ll typically see parentheses used—a), b), c), etc.—which are used intentionally to be points of reference within the rest of the document.

Strategize for Run-In Lists

Build run-in lists throughout your manuscript with a purpose. Fist, use semicolons either if one or more listed item includes internal commas, or if you set up the list with a colon. Academics may tell you that the constructions of built-in lists aren’t necessary because they can be explained in separate sentences. However, a list is meant to demonstrate that a handful of ideas are unified in some way. Therefore, in subtle instances, you can easily incorporate a delineated, cohesive list without pulling it out of the text. On a final note, be sure that run-in lists are structured logically. This will ensure uniformity and avoid leaving the reader wondering how your list connects to the broader scope of your paper.

Organize With Numbered Lists

When order or sequence is important, use numbered lists for items that you’d prefer readers to take more of a substantial notice to. Like all display lists, numbered items that are pulled out will draw the eyes of your readers. More significantly, the content will be easier to read and to scan through. In particular, explaining complicated concepts in your research papers can become less of a burden by arranging chronological points of discussion as various lists. Instead of attempting to string together intricate ideas within consecutive paragraphs, simply format a numbered list and introduce your explanations in logical chunks of underlining text.

Use Bullets to Explicate Points in Your Text

Bulleting, like numbered lists, helps to illustrate your ideas more clearly. They’re effective when order doesn’t matter but a group of discussion points are still related. Don’t hesitate to bullet items that are important takeaways, but also be mindful of how many times you’re pulling discussion points out of your lined copy. You don’t want your paper to read like a memo. With bulleted lists, logical organization is key and can make following your critical thinking, argument, or explanation of research less taxing and more convenient for the reader. Arrange subtopics under main bullet points using Microsoft Word’s bulleting function. Yet, note that in scholarly writing, academics generally expect explanations to be offered in a series of thoughtful paragraphs, so bullets should be used to complement your discussion and serve as a tool to help organize your thoughts for the reader.

Make Connections With Reference Lists

With no relation to the listing of information sources and citations, this type of list is often underappreciated and can be quite useful in organizing your writing. For instance, say you have four different terms, descriptions, or subcategories to discuss under the broader umbrella of a main topic. A reference list can be created using the a), b), c), d) formatting in order to “reference” a particular item. The reader will be introduced to the item first, and then a more meaningful connection can be made by using it as a reference point.


Why should you use a list? It’s simple—organization for the reader. Lists, whether run-in or displayed, will be a tool to help break up lengthy, concept-loaded paragraphs. Outline important points of discussion or complement a carefully explicated argument in the aforementioned ways in order to draw the reader’s eye to the points that really matter.

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