Editing Principle 10: Be Wary of Lists

Many nonprofessional writers pepper their writing with lists. I don't mean bullet points—that's a whole other subject—but these types of phrases:

“authenticity, nostalgia, innovation, and issues of sustainability”

The hope seems to be…what? Often that if one item in a list doesn't grab a reader's lapels, the next one will. Or the writer subconsciously thinks that by saying, in essence, "consider this and this and that and that thing too," they make less of a splash, and expose themselves to less criticism than if they limited themselves to one or two items in their list.

And to that extent, they may be right. Many online readers are quick to jump on and accuse writers of having left off some important consideration, with the not-too-subtle implication that the whole article can now be safely ignored.

But I always try to encourage writers to limit their lists, and if they can, to “pick one” out of the three or four or more. It’s not simply that many readers’ eyes start to glaze over after the third list item. I also think that trying to cover all of the bases often compromises rather than enhances the writer’s authority. Too many lists can make you sound like you’re trying too hard to please.

So part of the editing process consists of asking the types of questions that help writers isolate what's most important to their argument, to in essence if not verbatim “pick one,” then sitting there with this one thing on the metaphorical table, and contemplating it for awhile.

Then you re-examine your list(s) and start making some cuts. You might end up with a much shorter list but a whole new paragraph in a different location.

One nice side-effect of this process is increased confidence and conviction. It's the written equivalent of losing the "up-speak" that makes a person sound like they're asking a question when they’re actually trying to make a statement.

Megan Hustad