I am setting forth ten commandments for writers in the public sector, based on my dissertation and on standards for clear writing. The commandments will each appear as a Word of the Week.
In government documents, using a list is a popular rhetorical device: ”We offer services for children, youngsters, adults and seniors.” In other words, something for everyone. By listing items this way, a writer creates an impression of full coverage, but at the same time he makes the text long and dull.
A mania for coverage is one reason for the prevalence of lists. In addition, this technique is a fast way to compose a text, especially if you approve of sentence fragments: “Permits, applications, appeals. Reviews, reports. All here for you.” And guidelines for online writing often recommend using lists and similar visual highlights.
Justification for listing may stem from a Jakob Nielsen recommendation. He maintains that one way to support the scanning of text is to include lists. However, his own examples usually consist of only a few items, and each item tends to have only a few words. It’s true that short lists with two or three words per item are easy to skim, but longer lists do not help readers in the same way. This guideline therefore needs some context: a list can help a reader skim if it contains 3 to 5 items, and the items are 3 to 5 words long. Try not to use too many lists in the same text, a practice that Nielsen also advises against.