Thursday, May 12, 2005

Use moderate enumeration and tabulation for small-scale organization

Numbering can help readers get and understand information quickly and clearly. Even if you don’t number things, setting them off with bullets or simple tabulation can draw attention to them and make them easier to read than text in traditional paragraphs. Here are the guidelines I use:
  1. Don’t feel you must number the largest parts of your text--the major headings. There are often few enough of them that their importance will be obvious without numbering.

  2. Don’t feel you must always use a comprehensive, traditional outline format for numbering the parts of your text. Traditional outlines work well to convey the large-scale organization most of the time. But don’t adhere rigidly to an outline if it doesn't work for your text.

  3. Use numbers for small-scale organization. Numbering the headings and sub-headings cues the reader about large-scale organization, but smaller parts can be numbered, too. If you have three points to make, preview them with a numbered list.

  4. Don’t overnumber the text. Especially in legal drafting, you might feel the urge to break down every sentence, phrase, and list into a numbered sequence. But overnumbering makes documents harder to read, not easier. Rudolf Flesch called overnumbered text "shredded English."*

  5. Use hanging indentations with most numbered items, as I have done here. It looks clean and is easy to read.

  6. Use bullets instead of numbers only when there is no order to the items you are listing, and later reference to them is unlikely. In other words, it’s better to refer to "number 3" than it is to refer to "the third bullet."
Most legal writers could use more numbering. I could probably use less.

*Rudolf Flesch, How to Write Plain English: A Book for Lawyers and Consumers 102-113 (Harper & Row 1979).

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