Category Archives: Writing Guides

Critique all writing advice

When teaching I am often asked ‘What is the writing rule for X …’, with the expectation that there will be a hard and fast rule on topic X that simply needs to be learned and followed. Before responding, I talk about the difference between writing rules, general advice and the ‘It Depends…’ option. I consider a writing rule is something that must be done every time: for example, the rule of capitalising the first word of every sentence. But not all rules or advice should be automatically followed. This is the ‘It Depends…’  option.

Language wouldn’t work without rules and there is much advice and wisdom about how to improve writing. Most advice is based upon a wealth of experience, education and research. However, some advice is not helpful, continues to be republished and retaught and can make writing more difficult, especially if delivered as a rule rather than as a suggestion.

The problem with writing rules

1. As they are rules, they are often delivered as absolutes. This practice could lead writers to change their work, and possibly their intended meaning, for the primary reason of following a rule at the expense of closely reviewing and critiquing both their work and the writing advice.

2. They are not critiqued. Some writing rules might help some people some of the time, but it’s the exceptions that leave writers fretting. Critiquing a writing rule means looking at the exceptions to see how robust it is. Writing rules that reinforce current writing conventions are harder to change; for example, the use of the personal pronoun is still widely discouraged.

How does advice end up as a writing rule?

I believe writing rules can evolve from suggestions in the following way: Sarah struggled with writing long paragraphs and found it helpful if she forced herself not to write more than seven sentences for each paragraph. Sarah said to Peter, “You should restrict your paragraphs to no more than seven sentences.” Peter tried this and it worked for him. He also found that it helped him if he also made sure his paragraphs were not too short. Later, he told his friend Sia that “It’s a good idea if paragraphs are no more than seven sentences and no less than three”. Sia told her friends in her tutorial group, “I’ve heard that paragraphs should be no more than seven sentences and no less than three”. Some members of this tutorial group then believed this instruction was a writing rule: that this is how all paragraphs should be written.

This type of ad-hoc, untested advice, can be elevated to the status of a writing rule simply if delivered as a directive, by including words such as ‘should’, ‘must’ or ‘always’. These words immediately indicate something is an obligation or a duty, or a state of correctness. Also, simply calling something a ‘rule’ automatically raises its’ importance. 

Rules may appear easier to teach and learn

Perhaps some advice evolves into a writing rule because it initially appears easier to teach with the common ‘black or white’ or a ‘yes or no’ structure of rules. Some might also think that rules are easier to learn, and to follow, instead of having to make decisions about what and how to write. I occasionally hear inexperienced writers say they would prefer to follow writing rules thinking this will prevent them from making serious writing errors. 

The grey areas between the black and white writing rules

Teaching and learning in the grey areas between black and white writing rules primarily involves understanding how to deal with the exceptions to the rules. The process of teaching whether a certain piece of advice is valid can be time-consuming as it involves the use of argument and logic and the use of examples demonstrating valid exceptions to the rules. For example, the writing rule to use active voice is often delivered as a simple, single choice, yet the decision of whether to use passive or active voice is not straightforward.

Ideally, both the writing rule and the issue needing the rule require critical assessment and deliberation, before any advice is followed. This is the ‘It Depends…’ option which is my most common response when I’m asked to teach writing rules.

The ‘It Depends…’ option is where you:

  1. Review the writing rule under consideration.
  2. Analyse any exceptions to this rule
  3. Analyse how common and valid these exceptions are.

If there are many valid exceptions, a writing rule reverts to being advice that should be followed depending on the circumstances of the topic, the intention of the writer and whether crucial meaning or conventions are altered by not following this advice.

If there are too many exceptions then the writing rule becomes ambiguous, difficult to learn and difficult to teach. This is the case for some grammar, spelling and punctuation rules and for other advice delivered as writing rules.

Many writing rules are necessary

Some writing rules are more important than others. Most grammar rules are essential to explain how to use our language to communicate clearly. We need verbs in sentences otherwise we wouldn’t know what was going on; we need a subject so that we know who or what was doing the thing that was going on.

Some good suggestions need not be considered writing rules

Some writing rules are just good suggestions disguised as rules; for example, the common bullet point rule that helps maintain consistency and flow: “Always have the same size bullet point indents” can be rephrased as “Be consistent with bullet point indents.” You might have a valid reason for changing indents, especially if you have different types of bullet points.

Some writing rules are archaic or out-dated

While many grammar rules are essential, some are no longer used or followed. ‘Never split your infinitives’ is a prescriptive rule that dictates one must never place an adverb between ‘to’ and a verb’ (‘You have to quickly speak’ versus ‘You have to speak quickly’). This rule is widely criticised yet still commonly taught.

There are two types of grammar rules: Descriptive grammar describes how language is currently used, while Prescriptive grammar “specifies how a language and its grammar rules should be used”. Prescriptive grammar rules generally don’t change and are seen as absolute. I follow a descriptive approach, as long as the intended meaning is preserved, while following prescriptive rules when explaining grammar and when grammar errors make sentences unintelligible.  I agree with Mark Nicol’s comment that “A tension between the two systems is inevitable — and healthy; it keeps us thinking about what we’re saying and writing.” (Daily Writing Tips 2011).

Some writing rules are not so good

There are writing rules that are, at best, only slightly helpful. A student once claimed that their supervisor strictly enforced a rule never to phrase rhetorical questions within research papers but the reasons behind the rule were not explained.

Once writing rules become well-known, they are hard to undo. Some examples:

Some writing rules reflect and perpetuate writing conventions

Writing conventions are accepted ways of writing within a specific discipline. These conventions help delineate the discipline and are perpetuated by writing rules and more general advice. A simple example is the convention of writing Latin names for organisms, where species and sub-species are never capitalised and every level from genus and above are always capitalised. For example, the river red gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis): species: camaldulensis, genus: Eucalyptus, family: Myrtaceae, order: Myrtales, kingdom: Plantae.

As language changes over time, so too do scientific writing conventions. For example, using the active voice was once strongly discouraged and now many scientific disciplines actively encourage it’s use. However, both types of voice are necessary for clear communication.

It is crucial to stay informed of the current conventions within your discipline and research topic. Always refer to your journals’ Instruction for Authors if publishing a research paper or your organisation’s style guide to check what is expected. The Australian Style Guide is a good reference website suitable for many writing genres.

Don’t let writing rules stop you from writing

Yes, we want to avoid writing gobbledegook but don’t worry about writing rules in your first draft. When working on editing and rewriting your drafts, the top priority is not to compromise your meaning. Make sure that what you write is clear and succinct and that your presentation is consistent and easy to navigate. Always get feedback from your friends and colleagues if you want to know if you are making sense but critique all writing advice, especially if delivered as a writing rule.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2022

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How to write good research paper titles

Your title is the first and most important step in engaging your reader. It should be concise, interesting and summarise the essential content of the document. Any title that is lengthy, overly complex, ambiguous or misleading can turn away prospective readers. This writing guide gives an overview of the different types of titles and explains the essential steps in designing your title.

Title structure

Titles can be sentence fragments, complete sentences or compound sentences with the second sentence typically following a colon.

To help the paper appear in search results, it is common practice to place keywords in the title. Keywords used in the title should be placed in the beginning in case only a fragment of the title appears in the search results. 

Terms used to describe types of titles

Common terms used to describe different types of research paper titles are Descriptive, declarative, interrogative, suggestive, humorous and combination titles.

Descriptive titles or indicative titles

Descriptive titles state the subject, topic, design, purpose or methods of the project. For example:

  • ‘Effects of natural forest and tree plantations on leaf-litter frog assemblages in Southern Brazil.’ (Cicheleiro et al. 2021).
  • ‘An efficient incremental learning mechanism for tracking concept drift in spam filtering.’ (Jyh-Jian et al. 2017).

Declarative or Informative titles

These titles give the main findings or result of the study. For example:

  • ‘Novel flight style and light wings boost flight performance of tiny beetles.’ (Farisenkov et al 2022).
  • ‘Cause of hypereosinophilia shows itself after 6 years: Loa loa.’ (Hicks et al. 2022).

There is some concern that presenting the results or conclusions in the title of a paper will appear presumptive: that titles containing a definitive statement or final conclusion of a study, might prove problematic if that finding is later disproved.

Some journals prefer informative titles. For example, the Journal of Clinical Epidemiology has “… an editorial policy of “more informative titles” (MITs) that crisply and concisely tell our readers what our authors found in their research. A MIT states the study type and summarizes its key findings, using the past tense for individual studies and the present tense for systematic reviews.” The idea is that titles for small individual studies should be written in past tense to allow future studies to overrule or disagree with their findings, while titles should be written in present tense for studies that are unlikely to be over-ruled by later studies: i.e. literature reviews. Some research has also demonstrated that “articles with short titles describing the results are cited more often.” (Paiva et al. 2012).

Interrogative titles

Interrogative titles or titles phrased as a question. The use of questions in titles can create interest by making the reader immediately wonder what the answer might be. It is also a concise way of presenting the research topic.

For example:  

  • ‘Does adding video and subtitles to an audio lesson facilitate its comprehension?’ (Zheng et al. 2022).
  • ‘Microbial defenses against mobile genetic elements and viruses: Who defends whom from what?’ (Eduardo et al. 2022).

Suggestive titles

These are titles that are slightly ambiguous or overly brief to hint or suggest what the findings might be, presumably to create suspense to entice the reader to find out what the answer is. For example:

  • ‘Drawing to improve metacomprehension accuracy’. (Thiede et al. 2022).
  • ‘The puzzle of high temperature superconductivity in layered iron pnictides and chalcogenides.’ (Johnston 2010).

Humorous or colloquial title

These are titles that hope to attract interest through humour or common-use sayings, colloquialism or metaphors. These types of titles can be used to good effect. However, be mindful that colloquialisms might not make sense to readers from different language or cultural backgrounds.

For example:

Combination titles

Combination titles are those that include a combination of different types listed above.

The following example uses a colloquialism in the key title with the findings mentioned in the sub-title:

  • ‘Standing out in a crowd: Intraspecific variability in dorsal patterning allows for photo-identification of a threatened anuran.’ (Gould et al. 2021).

The following example has the following structure: ‘Topic: results of study’

  • Plastic Pollution in the World's Oceans: More than 5 Trillion Plastic Pieces Weighing over 250,000 Tons Afloat at Sea (Eriksen et al. 2014).

Which type is better?

There are conflicting views which type of title is better. There are arguments for and against different types, with research findings presenting the pros and cons of different types of title. Before you decide which is best, first look at how titles are commonly structured in recently published journals within your discipline.

Essential steps in designing your title

The following steps will help you design your document title.

1. Read the Instructions to Authors

Once you have selected a journal, review the types of titles recently published and read the Instructions to Authors to learn what the journal requires for paper titles. Instructions regarding titles are often brief. For example:

- Elsevier’s Guide for Authors “Title - Concise and informative. Titles are often used in information-retrieval systems. Avoid abbreviations and formulae where possible.”

- Plos One Submission Guidelines state that titles should be “…Specific, descriptive, concise, and comprehensible to readers outside the field.” and “…written in sentence case (only the first word of the text, proper nouns, and genus names are capitalized). Avoid specialist abbreviations if possible. For clinical trials, systematic reviews, or meta-analyses, the subtitle should include the study design.”

2. Consider your audience

Although the expected audience is broadly set by the scope of the journal, you still need to identify who will be interested in your paper. Who is your target audience? Are they scientists who mostly work in your field or will they include researchers from other disciplines? Consider what aspects of your project would attract your target audience and whether or not you can include these in your title.

3. Decide what aspects of your study to include in your title

As outlined above (Types of titles) decide whether you want to describe the process (descriptive) the result (informative) the research question or problem (integrative) or a combination of these factors.

Description of methods and study design

Titles of research papers, reports and conference proceedings often contain standard research methods. For example:  

  • ‘Plant-based diets and incident cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality in African Americans: A cohort study.’ (Weston et al. 2022).
  • ‘Using scale modelling to assess the prehistoric acoustics of Stonehenge.’ (Cox et al. 2020).
  • ‘The use of chronosequences in studies of ecological succession and soil development.’ (Walker et al 2010).

Description of study subjects and location

Titles often just describe the key study subject, and also often including habitat or location. For example: 

How specific or general should your title be?

Your title should be unique to your project. Hopefully, no one else is writing a paper exactly the same as you, and your title should reflect this. If your title is too broad or general, then you may give the impression that the study is larger than it is or that it is a literature review.  This is when it is important to make a distinction between ‘topic’ (general) and ‘title’ (specific). Unless you are writing a literature review or presenting a large-scale study, don’t give your research topic as your title.

Including information on the scope of the study will also help the reader understand the magnitude of your study and from this, the importance and implications of the findings. In the following example, “in highway bridges” gives the scope of the study:

  • ‘Finite element based fatigue assessment of corrugated steel web beams in highway bridges.’ (Wang & Wang 2015).

Avoid making your title too long with too much specific detail. For example, perhaps this title is too long:

  • ‘Use of open-text responses to recode categorical survey data on postpartum contraception use among women in the United States: A mixed-methods inquiry of Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System data.’ (Richards et al, 2022).

4. Consider your reader’s behaviour

Assume your reader only has a short time to decide if your title is relevant and that they will only review the abstract if the title interests them. Titles that include standard procedures, common cause-effect scenarios or well-known research topics, might be overlooked in preference for titles describing unique approaches or interesting findings.

5. Check that your title is clear and easy to read 

Your main message must be clear. Your titles don’t have to be grammatically-complete sentences, but make sure they make sense, especially if you have tried to shorten them by cutting out words. Don’t sacrifice clarity for brevity by making your title obscure.

Beware of using adjectival-noun strings in your titles. This is when authors try and be more concise by placing too many adjectives in front a single noun making it difficult to decipher whether each adjective is actually modifying the root noun or another word in the adjectival-noun string. Take an example from a student report: ‘Australian insecticide control failure.’ (Anon.) This might be interpreted as:

  • The failure of insecticide to control something in Australia.
  • The failure of Australian insecticide to control something somewhere else.
  • The failure to control [the use of] Australian insecticide.

Another unclear example: ‘Post head emergence spring radiative frost damage of winter cereals.’ (Anon.) It could be made even longer: ‘Winter cereal post head emergence spring radiative frost damage.’ 

6. Check your title length  

Check that your title length is adequate for readability and comprehension. The longer the title, the harder it is to read and comprehend, especially if it includes complicated terminology and phrasing. Every time something has to be re-read, you increase your chance of losing the reader. There is no golden rule about how long a title should be, but a good tip is to ask a colleague to read it out loud. If they are unfamiliar with title and struggle to read it easily, it is probably too long or too complex. Also check to see if there is a word limit set by the Instructions to Authors in your chosen journal.

The shorter the title, the easier it will be to read but only to a certain point. Too short and you risk sacrificing your meaning. Also, If you leave out too much detail, the title may appear too general and mislead the reader. If the reader has to guess what the meaning, you increase the chance of losing them. Check that your title is not too ambiguous, cryptic or inadvertently misleading. An ambiguous media release example:

7. Check that your title is concise

Titles can be made more concise by removing unnecessary repetition and detail. Common research phrases can be removed without affecting the meaning or structure of the title. Examples of these research phrases include ‘The influence of...’, ‘The role of..’, ‘Effects of..’, ‘Observations of..,’ ‘Studies on...’

For example: ‘Annual variation in the distribution of summer snowdrifts in the Kosciuszko alpine area, Australia, and its effect on the composition and structure of alpine vegetation.’  (Edmonds et al. 2006) [25 words] could be reduced to: “Distribution of summer snowdrifts influences composition and structure of Kosciuszko alpine vegetation, Australia” [13 words].  

8. Ways to make your title more interesting

Ask a question

By writing a title in the form of a question you are immediately inviting the reader to think. For example:

  • ‘Whose shoulders is health research standing on? Determining the key actors and contents of the prevailing biomedical research agenda.’ (Testoni et al. 2021).

Be humorous or focus on the unusual or unexpected

Mildly humorous titles immediately engage the reader while unusual or unexpected tiles create curiosity.

  • ‘On human odour, malaria mosquitoes, and Limburger cheese.’ (Knols 1996).

Final considerations

My key advice is, ensure your title is concise, easy to read (for your target audience), not too long and adequately reflects your study’s design or purpose (not too general or too specific).


  • Is it hard to read?
  • If it is a question, does it make your reader wonder what the answer is?
  • If it is a summary of your methods, are these methods unique or reveal a fresh approach or are they just standard and well-known and therefore unlikely to stand-out?
  • If it is the answer or conclusion to your problem, are you risking letting the reader think they now don’t need to read the paper? Or might your conclusion-title be a way to hook your reader into finding out more about your study?
  • Does it create interest or curiosity?

© Dr Marina Hurley 2022

Any suggestions or comments please email 

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Co-authors should define their roles and responsibilities before they start writing

Have you ever had problems when co-authoring a document?

Are you about to co-author a document but have not had a lot of experience of working with other authors? Have you worked with other authors who avoid replying to your emails, contribute little to the document, then expect to be included as an author? Have you sat down with your co-authors and decided who will do what task, then find that one author has taken charge of the writing project? Have you had disputes about who should be the lead author of your paper? These problems reflect a lack of planning: co-authors should define their roles and responsibilities before they start writing.

Being an author of a published scientific document brings responsibilities: you are acknowledged as having written and designed that document and you may need to verify or defend your writing.

If you are the author of a document presenting original research you are presenting yourself as the person responsible for designing and completing the study and you will be given credit for any original ideas, new findings and conclusions. You are responsible for verifying the integrity of your work. If there is more than one author, the credit and responsibility is assigned equally to all authors, even with the understanding that the first author is often the major contributor.

When co-authoring a document, each author will complete different tasks. The amount and type of work completed by each author will vary according to the nature of the project, the topic, the industry’s or discipline’s conventions and the number of co-authors.

Should each author's contribution be listed in the document?

Whether or not the contributions of all co-authors are included in the document itself, will depend upon the type and purpose of the document. For example, with a short, three-page report prepared by a company for a client, it might not be appropriate to state who the authors are, let alone outlining what their contributions were. In some instances, outlining co-authors contributions is essential. When submitting an article for a peer-reviewed journal, it is usually a requirement that co-authors meticulously outline their contribution to the document. For example, the ICMJE (International Committee of Medical Journal Editors) state “In addition to being accountable for the parts of the work he or she has done, an author should be able to identify which co-authors are responsible for specific other parts of the work. In addition, authors should have confidence in the integrity of the contributions of their co-authors.

Co-authoring is often unplanned

In many instances, the contributions of co-authors are not documented or even formally agreed to; a group of co-authors might discuss allocation of tasks over a coffee in an informal meeting or through short emails. In many instances, there is no prior agreement between co-authors at all which can lead to significant problems.

If the role and responsibilities of co-authors are not managed effectively, the process of writing can take longer than it should, or worse, documents may be poorly written or never get completed. Confusion about who does what can cause disagreement between authors and dramatically reduce the quality and quantity of what is written. Additional problems include:

- disputes over who is in charge of the writing project, who has the final say about the content or conclusions or who is the lead author

- unrealistic expectations by a writer being nominated as author when they have made an insignificant contribution

- objections by a colleague being nominated as an author when they consider their contribution to be minimal, preferring instead to be mentioned in the acknowledgements.

- unnecessary duplication of writing, editing and analysis tasks

- insufficient completion of essential tasks that is either not recognised at all or completed at the last minute without sufficient quality control

- ad-hoc invitations for other writers to contribute at different stages

Irrespective of the type of document produced, each co-author should outline their proposed contribution in separate document before they start writing. This is necessary for a well-managed project, as the role of authors can often change during the process of drafting of a document and written agreements are easier to manage than verbal agreements. An authorship agreement document can be updated if there are any changes and modified for different project. An example is the Authorship Agreement template from Southern Cross University. 

Steps in developing a Co-author Agreement:

1. Refer to a published authorship policy for guidance

An authorship policy outlines what contributions are necessary for someone to be considered an author of a document. Most universities have authorship policies (e.g. UTAS), as do publishing companies, editorial committees and research institutions. The Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research (2007) section on Authorship (5.1) states: …“To be named as an author, a researcher must have made a substantial scholarly contribution to the work and be able to take responsibility for at least that part of the work they contributed. Attribution of authorship depends to some extent on the discipline, but in all cases, authorship must be based on substantial contributions in a combination of:

  • conception and design of the project
  • analysis and interpretation of research data
  • drafting significant parts of the work or critically revising it so as to contribute to the
  • interpretation.”

2. Identify what contributions are necessary before assigning tasks to authors

If there is no lead author who is in charge of the writing project, as a group, co-authors should decide what contributions are necessary before assigning, or agreeing to tasks. This will ensure essential tasks are not overlooked and may prevent additional, unnecessary tasks (i.e. the preparation of 12 images for publication when one will suffice).

3. Draft an Co-author Agreement document

Draft an Co-author Agreement document that outlines each author's role, responsibilities and contributions to the document. This can also include timelines for completion. Send the draft to all co-authors for comment and feedback.

4. Finalise Co-author Agreement document

Once all authors have agreed to the outline, finalise the agreement and return to all authors. Once the contributions of each co-author are assigned and agreed to, then the writing can commence. If co-authors maintain regular communication while preparing the document, any changes to contributions can be further monitored.

The final Co-author Agreement document can also be developed as a template for future projects

© Dr Marina Hurley 2022

Any suggestions or comments please email 

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Bullet point lists versus paragraphs

This writing guide follows on from my previous writing guide, How to Structure Bullet Point Lists and focuses on when to use bullet points and when to use paragraphs. Although the difference between the two is obvious, some writers create unwieldy bullet points (see Figure 1) that would serve better as a paragraph or write dense paragraphs that could serve the reader better if presented as bullet point lists.

Before a comparison between the two can be made, the information must be in a form of a list or be easily converted into a list, and this is usually possible if a paragraph has the structure of a statement, followed by examples.

The following example could be written as either a paragraph or a bullet-point list.

“Technical communicators can create technical information for new products or update existing information. They might research or test a product to interpret and test technical information or specifications. Some tasks include working with or interviewing subject matter experts (SMEs) to extract information and uncover the missing details that a user might need to know.”  (From

In this example, the introductory element is: “Technical communicators can create technical information for new products or update existing information.” Everything else in the paragraph are examples of these tasks.

With minimal changes, this could be rewritten into a bullet-point list as follows:

Technical communicators can create technical information for new products or update existing information. Some tasks may include:

  • research or test a product to interpret 
  • test technical information or specifications
  • work with or interview subject matter experts (SMEs) to extract information and uncover the missing details that a user might need to know.

Figure 1: This is an example of a complicated bullet point list: some list items are very long

Some factors to consider when choosing to write paragraphs or bullet point lists

1. The length of your sentences 

If your sentences are:

-  long, bullet points might be easier to read.

-  short and there are a few of them, paragraphs may be just as easy to read as a bullet point list.

2. The number of list items

- If you have more than three list items within a sentence, consider turning them into bullet point lists.

- If you have many list items (i.e. more than 8-10), they may be difficult to read as either bullet point lists or paragraphs. If you do have very lengthy lists, consider using a table instead.

3. The number of bullet point lists in your document

The number and placement of bullet point lists affects the layout and presentation of your document. Too many successive bullet point lists may be difficult to read. If most of your document does consist of bullet point lists, try turning some into paragraphs to help break up the text. Be mindful that if you write bullet point lists within bullet point lists (also known as multilevel lists) make sure they are not difficult to read.

4. The size and number of your paragraphs

If you have many large paragraphs within a document, turning some into bullet point lists will help break up the text. Also consider breaking up large paragraphs into smaller paragraphs.

If you have many small paragraphs, then bullet point lists may not be necessary. Sometimes I find that if a document has lots of small (single sentence) paragraphs, then it ends up looking like a continuous bullet point list anyway.

Finally, don’t forget that the layout of your document influences its’ readability. So consider:

- What is the best way to effectively arrange your paragraphs and bullet point lists within your document?

- What is the best way to incorporate paragraphs and bullet point lists with other important features such as figures, tables, images and headings.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2021

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How to structure bullet point lists

What are bullet point lists?

When lists are presented with one list item per line, following an indented marker or symbol. they are commonly referred to as ‘bullet points’ or ‘bulleted lists’. Bullet point lists are widely used in science report writing but are rarely used in peer-reviewed journal articles (primarily due to save space).

What is the purpose of bullet points lists?

Bullet point lists are generally used for unnumbered and unordered lists and allow information to stand out separately from paragraphs and other surrounding text. Well-designed bullet points help attract the reader's attention when skimming a document and help them to quickly absorb multiple subtopics.

Making sure that bullet points are structured correctly also helps writers to clarify their thinking. Bullet point lists avoid the need to force a sentence or paragraph to contain lengthy and unwieldy lists. They allow the writer to be more succinct as the repetition needed to link connected sentences within a paragraph can be removed. They can also help to reduce the word count if the list is composed of simple phrases or sentence fragments rather than complete sentences.

The problems with the use of bullet point lists

Many writers are unsure how to structure bullet point lists and use them incorrectly. Some writers use paragraphs when they could have used bullet points and some overuse bullet points instead of writing paragraphs. Some writers haphazardly throw all types of information into bullet points, making them difficult to read. Therefore, guidelines are necessary.

When and how should bullet point lists be used?

There are different ways to structure bullet points. However, ensuring consistency and clarity of meaning is crucial. Two common questions I’m asked are, “Should bullet points be capitalised?’ and “Should bullet points be followed with commas or semi-colons?” My answer to both is, that it depends on what you are writing and how your structure your introductory elements and list items. An introductory element is the use of a phrase, sentence fragment or complete sentence to introduce the bullet point list.

1. Bullet point lists are introduced with a phrase, a sentence fragment or a complete sentence (introductory element). 

The introductory element is usually followed by a colon (See Example 1).

Example 1

The following is a brief overview of:

- my understanding about the broad types of software tools on offer.

- how different pricing models influence my choice of tools.

- the current software tools I regularly use for writing, teaching and managing my training consultancy.

- what to keep in mind when searching for good software tools.

(from ‘FAQ: What software tools do I use for writing and teaching?’)

2. Each list member must logically complete the meaning conveyed in the introductory element.

As Example 1 is introduced with a sentence fragment (‘The following is a brief overview of:’) each list item must form a grammatically-correct complete sentence when combined with it. For example, the second list item would be read as: “The following is a brief overview of how different pricing models influence my choice of tools.” This is why the first word of each list item is not capitalised and why full stops are used at the end of each list item.

It is very common for writers to avoid this important guideline and not check to see if each list item logically follows on from the introductory element. An incorrect way to represent the information in Example 1 would be as follows:

Hypothetical (incorrect) Example 2

The following is a brief overview of:

- my understanding about the broad types of software tools on offer.

- how different pricing models influence my choice of tools.

- Includes a current list of software tools I regularly use for writing, teaching and managing my training consultancy.

- Also some tips to keep in mind when searching for the good software tools.

The last two list items, although still relating to the topic, do not follow on from the introductory element. For example, the 3rd list item would read, “The following is a brief overview of Include a current list of software tools I regularly use for writing, teaching and managing my training consultancy.This does not make sense.

3. If an introductory element stands alone as a heading, it doesn’t need any punctuation (see Example 3 below). 

Nevertheless, in this example you could still place a colon after the introductory element.

Example 3


- Plans are not meant to be perfect but act as a guide to your thinking and a framework to further develop the project you are working on.

- Keep all versions of your plans for future reference or to use as templates for future projects.

- Ask colleagues for feedback on your plans as well as your document drafts.

 (from ‘The essentials of science writing: plan before you write’ )

4. If the bullet points are composed of complete sentences, they should be each be treated as a normal sentence with capitalisation and terminal punctuation (e.g. full stop, question mark) (see Example 3 above).

5. Consistency is crucial:

- Use the same symbol or marker for your bullet points throughout your document.

- Although you may have different types (structures) of bullet point lists within the same document, all list items within a bullet point list should be the same format: all phrases, all sentence fragments or all complete sentences.

This is another reason why Example 3 is incorrect as the 3rd point is a complete sentence, while the 4th point is a sentence fragment and both are dissimilar in structure to the first two points.

6. Bullet point lists items that are phrases or sentence fragments need no punctuation (see Example 4 below).


Example 4

Common writing problems often reflect that a writer has not thoroughly considered who their audience is, or what they need. This can cause the following problems:

- providing too much (or not enough) detail or background information

- providing too much detail on unrelated sub-topics or on a well-known topic

- using the wrong language or unfamiliar terminology

- assuming the audience’s level of interest in, or understanding of, the topic

(from How to identify your target audience,)

7. Ensure that your list items are distinct from each other (compare examples 5 & 6).

Example 5

An example of distinct list items:

I agreed to the following decisions:

- the start date of the project.

- that the consultation committee have a maximum of five registered members.

- the due date of the first stage of the report.

Example 6

An example of indistinct list items:

The following is a brief overview of:

- my understanding about the broad types of software tools on offer.

- how different pricing models influence my choice of tools.

- how different pricing models influence the way I research software tools.

In this example, the 3rd list item is closely related to the 2nd list item, so I would either combine them all leave point 3 out.

8. The list items can be presented in any order. If they must be presented in a certain order, they should be numbered and considered a ‘numbered list’ and not a bullet point list (See example 7).

Example 7 

Example of a numbered list

Steps to complete your enrolment:

  1. Read the terms and conditions.
  2. Download and complete the application form
  3. Email the application form to
  4. Follow instructions in enrolment notification email.

9. Use commas or semi-colons at the end of each list item if you are presenting a list as though it was part of an entire sentence (see Examples 8 and 9). 

Hypothetical Example 8 (with commas)

The site contained the following species:

- Eucalyptus saligna,

- Eucalyptus siderophloia,

- Eucalyptus oreades and

- Eucalyptus regens.

As a complete sentence this would be written as “The site contained the following species: Eucalyptus saligna, Eucalyptus siderophloia, Eucalyptus oreades and Eucalyptus regens.”

This type of bullet point list could also make a complicated list easier to read than if it was written in a sentence (see Example 8).

Hypothetical Example 9 (with semi-colons)

The site contained the following species:

- Acacia daviesioides (over 3 dozen seedlings);

- Acacia glaucoptera (3 shrubs);

- Acacia incurve (over 1000 small to medium shrubs);

- Eucalyptus saligna (over 200 seedlings);

- Eucalyptus siderophloia (one large tree and 3 saplings);

- Eucalyptus oreades (six saplings) and

- Eucalyptus regens (over 300 trees).

As a complete sentence this example would be written as “The site contained the following species: Acacia daviesioides (over 3 dozen seedlings); Acacia glaucoptera (3 shrubs); Acacia incurve (over 1000 small to medium shrubs); Eucalyptus saligna (over 200 seedlings); Eucalyptus siderophloia (one large tree and 3 saplings); Eucalyptus oreades (six saplings) and Eucalyptus regens (over 300 trees).

If you find you are writing these types of sentences or bullet point lists, depending on the type of document you are writing, it might be better to use tables instead.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2021

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