Why You Should Think Twice Before Throwing in Some Bullet Points

Just throw in some bullet points. Go ahead—you know they’re easy. They’ll take up space and even make your copy look better!

I don’t know about you, but this is what my unconscious often tells me when I’m pondering how to organize a particular piece of copy.

Although I’m a relative newcomer to the copywriting field, I know how tempting it is to use bullet points as the backbone of my copy. In many cases, this temptation is justifiable. When bullets are used effectively, they break up bulky paragraphs to highlight major points. The result is a pretty, attention-grabbing page that’s easier to scan.

So why not just give in to my instincts and use bullet points freely? For one, bullet points cease to be eye-catching if they’re everywhere. Second, bullets rely entirely on the writer’s instincts to be successful. After all, when it comes to writing bullet points, we copywriters use our best judgment to decide on:

  • Order
  • Length
  • Construction
  • Number
  • Salience

This isn’t news to you, though. All writing depends on the creativity and intuition of the writer. But writing relies on criticism as well as intuition, and my inner critic feels a little suspicious of bullet points. Can’t our intuition be wrong sometimes?

As a matter of fact, it can. Visual appeal is almost as important as content when it comes to bullet points, but not many copywriters know how to fully coordinate these two characteristics. Fortunately, I found a few helpful tips for balancing argument and aesthetics by doing some research.

Anne Holland, Content Director of the firm MarketingSherpa, wrote a great blog post about bullet points titled “How to Improve Bullet Point Copywriting – 2 Critical Rules.” In the post, Holland advises copywriters to place the two most important bullet points first and the third one last, filling the middle with points that aren’t as significant. Why? Because this arrangement suits the pattern of our gaze as we quickly scan the page. I’ve always organized bullet points in order of importance, chronology, or even length, so this visual tip surprised me.

On the same principle, Holland also suggests that the first word of each bullet should be the most solid, relevant, eye-catching word in the entire point. Our instinct is to order bullet points based on their content, but as Holland explains, we shouldn’t forget to build visual appeal into our word choice.

I discovered another useful trick in a recent email newsletter from Bob Bly, the renowned freelance copywriter and consultant. Bly discusses a simple but brilliant tactic: literally building bullet points, or bullet-point worthy features, into a product or service. Why not build copy the same way?

Sometimes we engage in this method automatically by outlining our bullet points before we draft the rest of an article. But Bob Bly’s insights suggest that we can take this process to a new level. We should ask ourselves, what kinds of bullet points would really grab readers? How can we build a page or article topic around those? (Adopting this view, you can see that the bullet points used above aren’t very effective because they don’t reflect this post’s overall argument. This is a problem of “salience,” as the bullets ironically note.)

Holland and Bly, both impressive copywriters, have outlined surprising strategies for writing more effective bullet points. Using our intuition is a great starting point, but we can always find more aggressive ways to tackle bullet points. Just try to balance the visual and persuasive elements of your wording the way you balance the instinct and critique you apply to your writing.


*Image provided by madmarv00 on Flickr

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