Everybody loves a list.
Your five favorite movies. The things you need to buy at the grocery store. Your “to-do” list. The “top ten reasons” of a late-night talk show host.
Lists have a special magic for us. They are easy, engaging and interesting. They also satisfy the anticipation of “what’s next” in all of us.
Back in the late 1970s, The Book of Lists by David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace and Amy Wallace contained esoteric lists such as a list of people Ronald Reagan had misquoted, the top 15 most boring classics and 10 words you can’t pronounce correctly. It was a huge bestseller and spawned subsequent volumes from those authors and others. People bought the book because it was so easily digestable and entertaining.
Those characteristics make the list is one of the most important aspects of writing for the web and a technique that the writer must master. A well-formed list not only adds visual variety to the writing but aids in comprehension. The list invited the reader to scan the text, but it can offer the visual cues to arrest the eye.
Lists do not form themselves. The writer must make them happen. Here are some considerations and guidelines:
- Appropriateness and significance. Lists are fairly easy to form, but they must be appropriate to the subject matter and significant to the subject. They must help introduce new information and concepts to the reader that are due some consideration on the part of the reader.
- Number of items. A list must contain at least two items. In web journalism, the best lists are three to five items, but there is no hard rule about the number of items in a list.
- Use of boldface. A list is best used when one or two of the most important words can be boldfaced. Doing this aids the reader in finding the words with the most informational value in the list. But boldfacing should be used sparingly. If you boldface an entire item in a list, you dilute the effect of the bold type.
- Numbered and unnumbered lists. Two of the most common types of lists in HTML are the numbered and the unnumbered list. The numbered list uses numbers to introduce each item in the list. Use the numbered list when the numbers are important either for sequence or importance. When numbers are not important to the list, use the bulleted, or unnumbered, list. Numbers can be distracting if they do not carry any informational weight.
- Parallelism. Ideally, lists should be constructed so that they are parallel. That has two meanings. One, grammar constructions of all items of the list should be the same. If one is a complete sentence, all of them should be. If one is a fragment beginning with a participle, all should be.The second meaning of parallelism is that the items in a list should be of the same type or alike in a discernible way. Another way of saying this that no one item in a list should seem out of place with the other items.
Take a look at this list. All of the words that introduce the items of this list are nouns.
(Parallelism is an important tool of the writer — one that should be understood thoroughly so it can be put to good use. The concept goes beyond the explanation presented here. To learn more about parallelism, start here at the Online Writing Lab at Purdue University.)
Visual aspects of the list
One of the reasons the list is so useful is that when properly created, it can be easily seen on a computer screen. By using shorter lists and indenting the list, the writer introduces white space around the words of a list, giving emphasis to those words and drawing the eye of the reader into them.
The eye can be further directed through the use of a bullet point (•) and boldface type. Because readers are likely to scan the text on a computer screen, the list with a bullet point and boldface type offers something different from what they are use to seeing. That makes them more like to stop and read.
For this reason, however, the list should be used carefully and with discretion. Not every article should have a list, but writers should use them appropriately and where they can help readers to take in the information they present.
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