Bullet points are a fantastic way to present a short list in a proposal, and they’re incredibly easy to implement – so easy, in fact, that I never see anyone explain how to properly use them! And yes, there is a right and a wrong way to bullet your points.
Here are some instances where using bullet points makes sense:
- When you have information that naturally lends itself to list form
- When you want to emphasize information
- When want to make it clear that you’ve got more than one example of something
And hey, whaddya know. That list conveniently doubles as an example. Let’s take advantage to note a few key points.
Because bullet points stand out, they should be considered on a level just below graphics when it comes to information your readers are likely to actually read. Just like graphics, they should be given immediate context – you can’t count on the paragraphs immediately above and below to be read right before and after your bulleted list. Graphics are given captions, bullet points should be given introductory headers or lead-in sentences that succinctly describe what is being bulleted. Depending on how much attention you want to draw to your list, you can bold your header to draw the eye.
How should you punctuate the ends of your bullets? Easy: don’t. They’re not sentences, they’re elements of a list. Do you punctuate your grocery shopping list? No, of course not. Bullets work the same way. If you feel like you really do need punctuation at the end of each item because of how complex the idea is or because you’re forming complete sentences, you probably shouldn’t be using bullets.
How should you punctuate your header? With rare exceptions, use a colon or, if you’re asking a rhetorical question (“Why use sporks?”), a question mark. This ties the heading sentence directly to the bullets that follow, making what information you’re conveying clear.
Each bulleted item should be a matching part of speech. For example, all nouns, all actions, all instances – you get the idea. Further, they should all match your header and each other. If your header is “Why do some people dislike pickles?” and your bullets are “They don’t like the taste,” “The texture bothers them,” “Green things make them throw up,” and “Pickles are sold at the grocery store,” the last one is going to stand out and throw off your reader. Maybe some people have a thing against any food commercially available, but because your other three bullets clearly list both an aspect of pickles (taste, texture, color) and why that aspect is potentially a problem, your fourth one should as well. You could edit this bullet to read “Grocery-store availability is contrary to their diet” and it’d be a-okay, extremely difficult dietary restriction aside.
Too Much of a Good Thing
As a final word of caution, remember that while bullet points are a useful tool, they shouldn’t be used to the exclusion of all the other tools in your box. If your page is full of bullets with only a little text between them, it looks less like you’re organizing and emphasizing important information and more like you have ideas but aren’t able to coherently talk about them and defend them. If you’re using bullets as a stop-gap, your readers will notice. But if you’re using them to make information easier to read and digest, they’ll thank you for it with increased comprehension and closer attention to your (bulleted) point.