Spinning the List

    By: Jonathan Gennick on Jan 24, 2019

    Spinning the List_Jonathan Gennick.png

    Last month I wrote about lists and the thought process in choosing between a bulleted list versus a numbered list. Recall that I suggested using bulleted lists for collections of items, and numbered lists for sequences of steps. While that’s good advice, some cases can be spun in either direction. Sometimes the decision between a collection of items and process has more to do with your specific approach to a topic than to the nature of the list items.

    Recapping Last Month

    My example last month involved a list of common items found in hardware stores. My initial presentation of that list was numbered:

    1. Bolts
    2. Nuts
    3. Washers
    4. Wood screws
    5. Sheet metal screws
    6. Hose clamps

    Numbering in this instance is suboptimal, because I’m not describing a process and merely am mentioning some example items. Those examples form a collection that is better presented in a bulleted list like this one:

    • Bolts
    • Nuts
    • Washers
    • Wood screws
    • Sheet metal screws
    • Hose clamps

    While the nature of the items in this list make it fairly obvious that a process is not being described, it’s really the introduction to my list that is the determining factor. I’m introducing a list of “common items found in hardware stores,” and that introduction clearly points to a collection and not a process.

    Introductions Matter

    Sometimes you have a choice in how you spin the presentation of a list. Let’s change the example to a list of bicycle parts. (Those who know me know that I am bicycle enthusiast.)

    Here are some parts you’ll find on a typical bicycle:

    • Seatpost
    • Crankset
    • Fork
    • Wheels
    • Handlebar
    • Brakes
    • Derailleur
    • Shifter
    • Chain
    • Seat

    Notice I’ve introduced the list as a collection of “some parts.” My use of bullets in the list items is consistent with my introduction. My list is not complete either. It’s a partial list. I’ve omitted some parts such as bottom brackets and pedals, and those omissions are also consistent with my introduction of the list – because I wrote “some parts” and not “all parts” in my introduction.

    From Collection to Process

    Introductions are crucial, and my bicycle parts list is a good example of why you need to spend time carefully crafting the right words to introduce any list presented to your readers. Introductions define the mental pathway and constraints by which readers understand the list that you are presenting.

    Those who really know me know that I often do frame-up bicycle builds – I begin with a frame and bolt on whatever parts I happen to prefer. With that background in mind, here is the order in which I generally assemble the parts when building up a bicycle:

    1. Seatpost
    2. Crankset
    3. Fork
    4. Wheels
    5. Handlebar
    6. Brakes
    7. Derailleur
    8. Shifter
    9. Chain
    10. Seat

    It’s the same list! All I’ve done is to change the bullets to numbers. That, and I’ve rewritten my introduction.

    The list items by themselves aren’t the deciding factor in whether my list is bulleted or numbered. My introduction is the deciding factor, and even before the introduction would come my purpose and goals for writing the larger piece that contains the list.

    Purpose and Goals

    Everything ultimately flows from my purpose and goals in writing the larger piece of content containing whatever list I’m presenting. Good writing is consistent. It wouldn’t do to randomly decide to present my list as steps in a process without also writing the surrounding content to reflect that process, and to describe it.

    Know why you’re writing, and to whom. Let everything flow from those two aspects. Knowing why and to whom you are presenting a list is key to introducing and presenting any list in support of whatever larger goals that you have in mind. Choosing to make a list a collection or a process has almost everything to do with your overarching goals, and not much at all to do with the list items in isolation. Stay laser focused on point, and craft each list in support of your larger message.


    JonathanGennick-150x150.pngJonathan Gennick is the Apress editor responsible for the IOUG Press, a cooperative publishing arrangement between Apress and IOUG with the aim of providing the very best in content for IOUG members and other Oracle professionals. Learn more at www.ioug.org/iougpress.

    Released: January 24, 2019, 10:26 am | Updated: January 24, 2019, 10:27 am
    Keywords: IOUG Press Corner | IOUG Press | IOUG Press Corner | tips for authors | tips for writers | writing lists | Writing Tips


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