Use Bullet Points for Readability in Emails

Cropped hand of businessman writing on adhesive note
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Using bullet points can make your emails easier to read and ensure the key points get noticed. Learn how you can incorporate them into your emails.

What Makes Text Easy to Read?

"Decipherability, pattern recognition, reading speed, retention, familiarity, visual grouping, aesthetic response”: you do not have to pick one; or two; or… five. All of these make it difficult to tell why text set in one font is better read than text composed using another. This, at least, was George E. Mack's conclusion in a "Communication Arts" article from 1979.

Surveying 101 years of legibility research in 1999, Ole Lund came to the following conclusion when he considered whether sans-serif fonts or those with the little Roman strokes (of course!) were more easily readable: who knows?

Text is easier to read when it is written well, possibly even if its letters have a few curls too few or too many.

What Makes Text Easy Not to Read?

If one writes for people reading on a screen at all, they tell us, one ought to respect those people's tendency to merely glance at text and skip large portions—and write for it.

Give those eyes something to stumble on, and they will, perhaps, stumble upon a few words or characters after that stumbling block. Blocks of (short) text set apart with (small) blocks in front work great for that.

Bullet Points: Legibility Benefits for Your Emails and Readers

So, bullet points and possibly numbered lists make it easy for readers to

  • skip most of your email's text
  • still get the important bits, at least

You can not turn everything into a list of bullet points, of course, but you should try to use them in your email messages whenever it makes sense.

Use Bullet Points for Readability in Emails

Bullet points and numbered lists not only make it easier to read an email by creating

  • structure
  • white space

they can also

  • make it easier for recipients to reply in a structured and quick manner.

Answers and comments can be given to individual points specifically, and if the original message was wisely structured, the reply requires less formatting by hand.

How to Insert Bullet Points in HTML Email

To make a bullet list if your email program or service lets you send messages formatted using HTML, most typically:

  1. Make sure the message you are composing is set to use formatting.

  2. Click the Insert bulleted list button in the composition toolbar.

  3. To add a new bulleted point:

    Hit Enter.

  4. To end the list:

    Hit Enter twice.

  5. To make a sub-list:

    Hit Enter.

  6. Hit Tab.

How to Insert Bullet Points in Plain Text Email

To make a bulleted list using just plain text in an email:

  1. Start the list on a paragraph of its own, separated from the paragraph before by an empty line.

  2. Use " * " (a star character with a whitespace character before and following it) to denote a new point.

  3. Start each point on a line of its own.

  4. You can use characters like ✓✷✴☞•◦; do keep in mind that the recipient's computer might not display these correctly.

  5. If you want, you can limit the width of each point and indent subsequent lines. Do make sure the width does not exceed some 80 characters if you do that.

Plain Text Bulleted List Example

 * This is the first item.
* The second item is a tad longer. If you do
elect to break lines manually, make sure each
line does not exceed some 80 characters.
* You can, but need not indent.