Not buying groceries? Don’t make a list

When you see a list, do you read it?

I’m not talking about grocery lists; I read those very closely, but only when I’m at the store. Then I toss them in the nearest trashcan. When I come across lists in a book or proposal I’m reading, I toss those lists in the mental trashcan—but I rarely read past the first one or two items.

Some people try to disguise lists as actual writing. But lists in paragraph form are still lists—great blobs of copy in which people try to impress you with how many clients they’ve had, or how many kinds of things they write, or how many…No, I can’t go on. If I do, it’ll turn into a list.

When I’m reading something and hit a list, I stop reading immediately. My eye drops straight down to the bottom of the paragraph, looking for the period that signals the resumption of normal syntax. I figure if the writer had something important to say about one of the items on the list, he’d say it—and then I’d be reading sentences.

I’m happy to read sentences; they give me information. Lists just give me names.

Why list?

I’m not the only person who refuses to waste time reading giant streams of information. So if you’re a list-writer, why do you feel compelled to create them?

If you feel stripped of all authority and posture without a list, I have two suggestions for you:

As the folks over at Cornell University explain:

“The purpose of the annotation is to inform the reader of the relevance, accuracy, and quality of the sources cited.”

An annotated bibliography does more than tell you what books the author read. It tells you why she read them, and allows you to decide whether you might like to read them too.

So let us know not just who you worked for, but what you did for them, what problems you identified or solved. And if you can throw in measurable results, even better. If that’s starting to sound more like a paragraph than a list, well, then my work here is done.

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