Lists allow us to include a lot of information in short space in a way that readers can understand it. At the simplest level, they save space by not putting items in sentence form. They also save room by reducing the “white space” around things, although some lists prove more legible by adding white space via bullets.
Here’s my favorite list, a masterpiece from the St. Petersburg Times, which explains the plight of modern women:
“The first handbook of the Girl Scouts of America, published in 1913, was a self-help book of amazing scope. It told girls how to stop a runaway horse, splint a broken leg, prevent frostbite, recognize poisonous snakes, start a fire, tie knots, send a message in Morse code or by semaphore, tie up a burglar with 8 inches of cord, tell time by the stars, discourage mice, prevent consumption, rescue a person who has fallen through the ice, exercise to develop strength, scrub and polish floors, read a map, patch a hole in a dress, cure a ham, take a pulse, test milk for butterfat content, clean wire window screens, play various games, be observant, sew on buttons properly, poach eggs, use sour milk to bleach linen, make a ‘really good rice pudding,’ bathe a baby, put a child’s stockings on, stop a nosebleed, remove a cinder from an eye, put out a fire, rescue a person drowning and give artificial respiration.”
Ladies and Gentlemen, meet Superwoman. Look how much information you absorbed easily in just one paragraph. Lists have some hierarchy, in that the first and last items are more memorable, simply by position. But everything in the middle is equal, creating lots of possible irony by juxtaposition. For example, “make a ‘really good rice pudding’” has the same value as “tie up a burglar with 8 inches of cord.” (Actually, I’ve always used at least two feet of cord to tie up criminals.)
Lists can appear in the paragraph form above, but they’re easier to read with bullets. Let’s remake the top of the list. Watch how bullets open it up:
The first handbook of the Girl Scouts … told girls
· how to stop a runaway horse
· splint a broken leg
· prevent frostbite
· recognize poisonous snakes
· start a fire
· tie knots.
Long paragraphs look dense and intimidate the reader; graphic designers call them “tombstones.” Of cource, a bulleted list as long as our original paragraph might look awkward.