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I am writing a short piece for a technical audience. In essence I have three main points, each with sub-points. A few of the sub-points themselves have sub-points. I cannot help but find it clearer when I visually outline the hierarchy (as below), however I have been told that such an outline is overwhelming and to be avoided.

Is there guidance on when one should or should not use such an outline? I am looking for evidence-backed research or an official style guide.

Any thoughts greatly appreciated. Thank you!


Each of the points is one sentence or less, and relatively self-explanatory. Putting them into paragraphs and complete sentences just seems to pad and dilute the content, not particularly to clarify it or make it easier to understand.

Example outline:

  • (Point 1, e.g. "company policy for what to eat")
    • (1.1 "eat your veggies")
    • (1.2 "eat protein")
    • (1.3 "also drink water")
  • (e.g. "how to deal with earthquakes")
    • ("earthquakes can strike at any minute, so:")
      • ("always carry your earthquake hat")
      • ("buy earthquake insurance ahead of time")
    • ("when an earthquake occurs, try to avoid falling into the center of earth.")
    • etc...
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1 Answer

up vote 8 down vote accepted

The only study on bullet points I could find was done by Chris Atherton looking at the usage of bullet points in Power Point slides, and this concluded that they did not work when it came to the audience remembering the information presented. However, in written form, this study would likely not apply since it's a completely different setting.

Something that could help is a study that was done in the fifties of the "magical number seven", which suggests that the number of objects or chunks of information a person can hold in working memory is around seven, plus or minus two (in reality, the number is probably in the region of three or four).

This would suggest that long bullet point lists such as what you propose could hamper learning, and possibly understanding. Although they're brief, and bullet points are useful for scanning, the quantity and hierarchical organisation of that information may not lend itself well to cognitive performance.

It's worth pointing out, too, that the example you've given suggests you are grouping together items in a list that are not related. For example, it doesn't make sense to have "Company policy for what to eat" and "how to deal with earthquakes" in the same bullet point list. Those are better served as headings for each section, since these are not for "remembering" something, but rather used for "finding" the information you need to know. I would therefore rethink about what actually needs to be in my bullet points, and then number your headings into sections and subsections.

I would then suggest two strategies.

The first is to present three or four bullet points that outline a particular section, and then include your paragraph(s) of text. In other words, the bullet points can be viewed as a summary of what follows. You're therefore outlining in brief the central points a person needs to understand, but also providing more in-depth information.

Example:

1. Company Policy for what to Eat

  • Eat your vegetables
  • Eat protein
  • Drink water

Eating vegetables is vital to your body because blah blah.

Protein is an important ingredient because ...

Drinking regular water helps maintain alertness, and improves cognitive abilities.

2. How to Deal with Earthquakes

2.1 Be prepared beforehand

  • Carry your earthquake hat
  • Buy earthquake insurance ahead of time

Since earthquakes can strike at any time, it's advisable to carry your hard-hat with you at all times, since there is a large amount of debris that could fall from the ceiling. It is also recommended that you insure yourself and your building against earthquakes, just to make sure your are better protected financially no matter what happens.

An alternative to bullet points could be to bold certain information in the paragraph since this would break the paragraph into manageable chunks to help understanding and memory retention.

For example:

1. Company Policy for what to Eat

It is vital to eat plenty of vegetables because they are extremely important in helping your body to blah blah. Also eat protein because it is necessary for ... Finally, we recommend you drink water regularly, because it helps maintain alertness and improves cognitive abilities.

2. How to Deal with Earthquakes

2.1 Be prepared beforehand

Since earthquakes can strike at any time, it's advisable to carry your hard-hat with you at all times, since there is a large amount of debris that could fall from the ceiling. It is also recommended that you get earthquake insurance for yourself and your building, just to make sure your are better protected financially no matter what happens.

Edit: Oh, and obviously, the third option is to just present bullet points with headings, and no paragraphs. Example:

1. Company Policy for what to Eat

  • Eat your vegetables
  • Eat protein
  • Drink water

2. How to Deal with Earthquakes

2.1 Be prepared beforehand

  • Carry your earthquake hat
  • Buy earthquake insurance ahead of time
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The depth and thoughtfulness of this answer is really, really good. Thank you!! –  elliot42 May 1 '11 at 12:15
    
@elliot42 - Glad I could help, good luck with your writing. –  Craig Sefton May 1 '11 at 12:20
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