Going short before you go long will help improve your aim

Bullet-pointed list

A while back, I asked a client to supply some information following a conference call. Knowing that putting thoughts down on paper can sometimes make people freeze up, I said that bullet points were fine.

They’d then be free to go with the flow, without overthinking what they were writing. All I wanted were some rough-and-ready ideas that would give me a starting point for the first draft of the copy.

They took ages, which wasn’t a good sign – and came back with fully formed sentences. It was too rough to be a first draft (and in any case, that was my job) but not rough enough to cover the essentials. Because they’d been focusing on the format, not the content, they’d very quickly got lost in the detail.

And that can happen to the best of us.

Power(Point) to the people

Bullet points have traditionally got a bad rap. And partly, that’s because of the over-use and flagrant abuse in slide decks.

Many years ago, when I worked for Microsoft, we used to joke about ‘death by PowerPoint’ – usually when we were doing a presentation using the offending software. I remember talking about ‘dodging bullets’ and being the ‘last man standing’ by the end of the presentation.

Jokes apart, the problem with PowerPoint bullets is usually that there are too many of them, and they leave nothing to the imagination. And since people can read faster than a presenter can talk, they should always leave something out.

Because a slide deck is not a script, but a summary that hides the detail – which the speaker gives the audience, keeping their attention in the process.

Ready, aim, fire

So bullets, when used sparingly and thoughtfully, can hit the target. And I use them all the time to do just that. When I’m writing a blog post, I always start with bullet points.

Why? Let me walk the talk and show you why using bullets is the way to go: 

  • It lets your brainstorm, in a way that writing plain text doesn’t. 
  • It takes your mind off the form, and lets you focus on the content.
  • You can quickly get everything down, when the thoughts start coming thick and fast. 
  • Arranging/rearranging is simplified, as you move entire sections around. 
  • It’s easy to see the logical order of your story/argument.
  • You don’t have to commit yourself too early. Flowing copy has a very finished, almost immutable, quality that means it’s often more difficult to change.
  • You don’t lose the broad arc of the story, as you get lost in the detail.
  • You’re forced to break up your story/argument/logic into blocks, so you can see more clearly whether it holds up to scrutiny (it never does the first time around, believe me). 

Short, then long

Starting with regular instead of bullet-pointed copy may seem like it’s saving you time (because you’re closer to the finished article) but it almost always complicates the process, as it’s more difficult to unpick. 

Two friends recently asked me to review something they’d written – an essay in one case, and a covering letter in the other. Both friends had the sense that something wasn’t quite right, but said they couldn’t pinpoint it.

It took me just a few seconds to see that they had both succumbed to NPS: Never-ending Paragraph Syndrome, where you try to pack all of your thoughts into one long paragraph. Admittedly the essay wasn’t just one paragraph, but a collection of overly-long individual ones that had everything including the kitchen sink.

When I quizzed them, both friends admitted that they hadn’t bullet-pointed their thoughts before beginning. They’d just started writing, and as the thoughts kept coming, they kept writing. And writing.

It’s a very common habit, and one that’s even encouraged by some writing gurus: don’t plan, just get something – anything – down on paper.

I’m totally on board with that. But make sure that something is bullet-pointed. Otherwise, it’ll end up as a stream-of-consciousness effort that readers will struggle to follow.

And anything that’s a struggle nowadays is just one click from something that’s not.

Which is one click you definitely don’t want.