Writing Effective Lists

At this time of year, I spend a lot of time meeting with students. In the next few blog posts, I plan to address some of the issues that come up over and over again in these sessions. I will start by talking about lists. I did discuss lists briefly in an earlier post on colons, but now I can treat the topic more fully. At the most basic level, lists are important because academic writing is full of them. But they aren’t just prevalent, they are also significant because they are used to convey both content and structural information. Here is an example to consider:

Today’s educational leaders face increasing demands for public accountability, working long hours to improve student achievement, providing instructional leadership, demonstrating moral leadership, exercising fiscal prudence, supporting their staff, and need to navigate a litigious environment while facing low teacher morale.

The first step is to identify the shared root of the list, the part that must work with each list item. In this case, the shared part of the sentence is ‘Today’s educational leaders face …’.

Today’s educational leaders face (1) increasing demands for public accountability, (2) working long hours to improve student achievement, (3) providing instructional leadership, (4) demonstrating moral leadership, (5) exercising fiscal prudence, (6) supporting their staff, and (7) need to navigate a litigious environment while facing low teacher morale.

The first thing we see is that educational leaders face increasing demands. So far, so good. But do they also face working, providing, demonstrating, exercising, and supporting? Probably not. There is nothing grammatically incorrect about those formulations, but they are awkward and presumably not exactly what the author intended. The final item is, in fact, grammatically incorrect. We cannot say ‘Today’s educational leaders face need to …’. And changing the final phrase from ‘need to navigate’ to ‘navigating’ would give us parallelism but would not solve the broader problem with the list.

The simplest solution will come from looking at the list items to see what they all have in common; we can readily see that each list item is something that educational leaders must do. By choosing a more general verb for the shared part of the list, we will then be able to accommodate a wider assortment of terms in our list. Here is a new version of our sentence:

Today’s educational leaders must  face increasing demands for public accountability, work long hours to improve student achievement, provide instructional leadership, demonstrate moral leadership, exercise fiscal prudence, support their staff, and navigate a litigious environment while facing low teacher morale.

This sentence is fine, but there may be more we can do. When analyzing list items, we need to consider that establishing parallelism may not be enough; we also need to consider that the ideas themselves may not actually be parallel. In this sentence, I would be inclined to separate out the things that educational leaders must do from the things that make those tasks even more challenging. We might say something like this:

Today’s educational leaders must provide instructional leadership, demonstrate moral leadership, exercise fiscal prudence, support their staff, and work long hours to improve student achievement. These responsibilities are further complicated by low teacher morale, a litigious environment, and increasing demands for public accountability.

By breaking up a list and grouping similar items together, we can often get more clarity about what we are trying to say. During the drafting process, it is easy to create lists out of what are actually dissimilar items; during the revision process, we can take another look and reorganize the list according to an enhanced understanding of our own communicative aims. (Note that in these two lists, I have placed the most complex list item last; lists are easier to read when the most grammatically complex items are put at the end of the list.)

A second issue with lists–one which we will have to look at in the next post–is the purpose of the list within a text. The example that we have been looking at today provides a bunch of information quickly. The sentence sounds as though the author simply needed to provide some necessary background without wanting to engage in any further discussion of these points. After reading this sentence, my expectation would be that these particular points would not be important in the rest of the text. Next week we will look at the way we use lists to accomplish a very different task: to anticipate and announce the structure of our texts.

4 responses to “Writing Effective Lists

  1. what a wonderful post. there is absolute gold in so many of the things you talk about here. it was funny, i was telling my student today that glop or blob-like things in the world dont “take” any particular sequence or order. their shape doesnt matter. in fact, that sort of what defines glop/blobs. but the shape of writing, i said, does matter. the ideas which undergird those choices–to sequence this way or that–matter. using lists as a muse, your post shows this with an expertise that flows so effortlessly and, if may add, beautifully and quite elegantly.

  2. Great post Rachael – thanks for demystifying this area. I often get students to write lists as an aide to composition, but your technique is more sophisticated than mine!

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