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Editing Principle 38: Bullets Be Damned

bulletinEdward Tufte recently tweeted a snippet of the physicist Richard Feynman grumbling about bullet lists. From the sound of it, Feynman encountered bullets for the first time during his work investigating the Challenger shuttle explosion in 1986, and was not impressed: “Then we learned about ‘bullets’–little black circles in front of phrases that were supposed to summarize things. There was one after another of these little goddamn bullets in our briefing books and on slides.”

Quick clarification before you read further: This may only be relevant for those writing in or for corporate outlets. i.e. If you’re in the business world, read on. If you write for The New Yorker, safely skip.

Most people who embrace the bulleted list do so because they believe that breaking text up into fractured bits helps people understand, digest, and remember the information it contains. But typically when I ask these people how they know bullets work that way, they have no answer. They have used bullets so long, and in so many presentations, that they take their usefulness on faith.

Tufte, however, points out that bulleted lists can do more harm than good, and especially when the analysis presented is of necessity more “causal, multivariate, comparative, evidence-based, and resolution-intense.”

Here’s my cheap-and-cheerful attempt to put Tufte’s objection to bullets into plain English: Bullets get in the way when you’re trying to communicate how things relate to one another, even play off of each other. They often fail to highlight how one list item exists in tension with another item. Bullets describe a universe of this AND that AND this AND that–where everything’s just one thing after another. But most of us live in a world where this BUT that, also, is true, THEREFORE this other thing is true, WHICH LEADS TO this other, more distant, conclusion, RESULTING in…etc. We think best in terms of moving parts, cause and effect, and bullets typically don’t give us a sense of dynamic interplay.

Using them is like trying to tell a story without using verbs. The effect is static, and about as easy to recall as a phone number you’ve seen once; you may remember a few digits, but not necessarily in order, and probably not the full ten.

That said, there are jobs bulleted phrases do well. But if you’re trying to bring aspects of storytelling to whatever you’re writing, they’re not a great choice.