Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Writing for the web: making a (bulleted) list

The list is one of the most important aspects of writing for the web that the writer must master. A well-formed list not only adds visual variety to the writing but aids in comprehension. The list invited the reader to scan the text, but it can offer the visual cues to arrest the eye.

Lists do not form themselves. The writer must make them happen. Here are some considerations and guidelines:

  • Appropriateness and significance. Lists are fairly easy to form, but they must be appropriate to the subject matter and significant to the subject. They must help introduce new information and concepts to the reader that are due some consideration on the part of the reader.

  • Number of items. A list must contain at least two items. In web journalism, the best lists are three to five items, but there is no hard rule about the number of items in a list.

  • Use of boldface. A list is best used when one or two of the most important words can be boldfaced. Doing this aids the reader in finding the words with the most informational value in the list. But boldfacing should be used sparingly. If you boldface an entire item in a list, you dilute the effect of the bold type.

  • Numbered and unnumbered lists. Two of the most common types of lists in HTML are the numbered and the unnumbered list. The numbered list uses numbers to introduce each item in the list. Use the numbered list when the numbers are important either for sequence or importance. When numbers are not important to the list, use the bulleted, or unnumbered, list. Numbers can be distracting if they do not carry any informational weight.

  • Parallelism. Ideally, lists should be constructed so that they are parallel. That has two meanings. One, grammar constructions of all items of the list should be the same. If one is a complete sentence, all of them should be. If one is a fragment beginning with a participle, all should be.

    The second meaning of parallelism is that the items in a list should be of the same type or alike in a discernible way. Another way of saying this that no one item in a list should seem out of place with the other items

    (Parallelism is an important tool of the writer -- one that should be understood thoroughly so it can be put to good use. The concept goes beyond the explanation presented here. To learn more about parallelism, start here at the Online Writing Lab at Purdue University.)
What good is all this?

Jakob Nielsen's research group has confirmed that readers of text on a web page are likely to do so in an F-shaped pattern. The research produced the "heatmaps" shown here that indicated the hot spots on a page of text where the eye of the reader tends to stop.

Nielsen says this about the implications of this pattern:

The F pattern's implications for Web design are clear and show the importance of following the guidelines for writing for the Web instead of repurposing print content:
  • Users won't read your text thoroughly in a word-by-word manner. Exhaustive reading is rare, especially when prospective customers are conducting their initial research to compile a shortlist of vendors. Yes, some people will read more, but most won't.
  • The first two paragraphs must state the most important information. There's some hope that users will actually read this material, though they'll probably read more of the first paragraph than the second.
  • Start subheads, paragraphs, and bullet points with information-carrying words that users will notice when scanning down the left side of your content in the final stem of their F-behavior. They'll read the third word on a line much less often than the first two words.

A well-structured list thus plays into the tendencies of the reader and gives the producer of the web page a great chance to satisfy the reader.

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