Reading made easy

Cider with Rosie, by Laurie Lee

Chapter One – First Light

  • I was set down from the carrier’s cart at the age of three; and there with a sense of bewilderment and terror my life in the village began.
  • The June Grass, amongst which I stood, was taller than I was, and I wept.
  • I had never been so close to grass before.
  • It towered above me and all around me, each blade tattooed with tiger-skins of sunlight.
  • It was a knife-edge, dark, and a wicked green, thick as a forest and alive with grasshoppers that chirped and chattered and leapt through the air like monkeys.

Did you have any trouble reading that opening paragraph from Cider With Rosie? You shouldn’t have. I made it easy for you by splitting the text into handy bullet points.

Laurie missed an obvious story-telling trick

Using bullet points in this way makes heavy blocks of text easier to read and digest. Without them, the dense forest of words looks intimidating. It creates a fear in the would-be reader that, were he to embark upon the ordeal of reading the text, he would only get as far as the fourth or fifth line before realising that he’d completely forgotten what was said in the first.

The utter refusal of authors to employ bullet points in this way shows complete contempt for their readers and probably explains why the vast majority of them remain unknown and unread. Can you imagine how much more popular the long-forgotten novel Peter Pan might have been if its author, one J M Barrie (?), had started the book like this:

  • All children, except one, grow up.
  • They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this.
  • One day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother.
  • I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, ‘Oh, why can’t you remain like this for ever!’
  • This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up.
  • You always know after you are two.
  • Two is the beginning of the end.

See? The very idea of that reasonably promising opening being expressed in a solid block of black type goes against every grain of common sense.

Have I made my point?

You can sense that I’m being sarcastic here. And if you know me at all you can probably tell that I have recently experienced some sort of conflict involving the enforced deployment of bullet points.

Yes, and yes.

I had written a booklet setting out the design and copy guidelines that designers, art directors and copywriters should adhere to when creating material for a new advertising campaign.

The logo should always appear bottom right. Headlines should always be in Helvetica. That sort of thing. (Obviously it went into a little more detail than that.)

I’d used a mixture of bullet-pointed copy where it was appropriate, and regular copy where it wasn’t. But the client decided that all the copy should appear in bullet point format. So all the sentences that were designed to flow together, forming a narrative that makes sense to the reader, were summarily disconnected and made to stand alone.

The result of this was:

  • The copy in some bullet points was quite long because it had originally been a longish sentence
  • But not in others
  • As each sentence was honoured with its own bullet point, readers were likely to infer that each ‘point’ was invested with equal importance
  • They clearly weren’t
  • Narrative copy doesn’t work like that
  • Then there’s this irony
  • Mixing long bullet points with short little staccato ones created on the page the sort of design chaos that the guidelines were in part trying to prevent
  • And you had bullet points beginning with But and However and And

You could argue with some justification that as the booklet was aimed at designers it should be completely idiot-proof. Designers, it is often thought, think excusively in visual terms and have at best a nodding acquaintance with the written word.

Help for designers. Image courtesy leaeva.com

Well, maybe so. There’s no shortage of appalling design to lend weight to that theory. But the worst offenders aren’t going to pay attention to any copy, whether it’s in paragraphs, bullet-points, tattooed on their foreheads using mirror writing or personally set in second-coming type before their very eyes by Neville Brody dressed in a tutu.

A tutu

Neville Brody

Bullet points are great for lists of things. Dos and don’ts,  for example. Or when you want to show a number of different sizes of things: figures look confusing and illegible when expressed in flowing text.

They work best when there’s between three and 10 bullets. As mentioned, they should all be about the same length. Put a full stop at the end of the last one or not at all. No one will mind. Make sure the leading letter of each word can’t be added together to spell TITFEST. You’d be surprised how often that happens.

Are there any opening paragraphs that could benefit from being given the bullet(s)? Well, that chap Dickens wrote some titanic sentences. Perhaps we could rework the opening sentence of:

A Tale Of Two Cities

The following book is set in the:
  • best of times
  • worst of times
  • age of wisdom
  • age of foolishness
  • epoch of belief
  • epoch of incredulity
  • and many more enticing dichotomies
As the story unfolds it will be seen that contrasts continue to take centre stage as the protagonists:
  • had everything before them
  • had nothing before them
  • were all going direct to Heaven
  • were all going direct the other way
In summary
The period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Hmm. That still needs a bit of work…

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8 Comments

Filed under Ill-informed advertising observations

8 responses to “Reading made easy

  1. bravenewmalden

    Oops. Didn’t mean to like my own post.

  2. So where do you stand on Dave Trott’s style?

    He writes one sentence paragraphs.

    Which are virtually bullet points.

    What about one word paragraphs?

    Yep.

    You’re right though.

    • bravenewmalden

      Trott’s style can be a bit wearing but he can (just about) get away with it ‘cos he’s Trotty. It was pilloried very well by Matt Beaumont in the novel E, if I recall.

  3. Don’t some platforms almost beg for a style of their own?

    Web-content – in my head at least – screams for white space. Accordingly that’s how I tend to write web-content.

    Product for other platforms differ.

    I recently had a contract for a series of wordy features and, as an experiment, moderated my web-content to match the magazine style.

    It looks weird!

  4. Jon

    You’re right, Brave, Trott only just gets away with it, although after reading his blog regularly for quite a while now, I’d kill for a rambling paragraph or two.

    Perhaps writing in that style of one line per para should get its own name: ‘having the trots’.

    • bravenewmalden

      ‘Could you trot it up a bit?’ ‘I think this paragraph could do with some serious trotting.’ Yes, it could catch on.

  5. I liked your bulleted books idea. Numbering the paras makes for a possible alternative but like so many of the better ideas, God got there first as you can see from this short extract from His first published effort (now out of copyright).

    1 First God made heaven & earth 2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. 3 And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day. 6 And God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.”etc.

    I can’t help thinking the numbers get in the way of the flow and bullets would have been better, but it would have taken up quite a lot more paper with one bullet per line and you have to bear in mind that when he was writing paper was in very short supply.

    • bravenewmalden

      He wrote it all in the third-person, too. Good old self-effacing God.

      I expect bullet points are featured quite heavily in Guns and Ammo magazine.

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