Lists: Backwards and Forwards

The last post was about writing effective lists. In that post, I talked about two important aspects of lists. At the simplest level, we should be able to use parallelism to make sure our lists are easy to read. At a more sophisticated level, we should be able to look at our own lists analytically to see if we can deepen our understanding of the ideas we are trying to convey. Apparently, I have a lot to say about lists since I now realize that I have two more points I wish to make. Today I would like to discuss the first of those points: how to improve ‘backwards’ lists. These are lists that list first and explain themselves last. Here is an example:

Effective patient care, respect for patient and family knowledge about the condition, and the need for community support were all issues identified by the focus group.

As a reader, you aren’t aware that you are reading a list of issues until you get close to the end. At that point, you might have to double back to fully grasp the sentence. Or you might even have had trouble the first time through since the structure of the sentence isn’t self-evident. Here is a revision:

The focus group identified three issues: effective patient care, respect for patient and family knowledge about the condition, and the need for community support.

This simple revision—and certainly more could be done to improve this sentence—has two obvious benefits. One, it starts with a clear subject and a strong verb (‘The focus group identified’), and, two, it notifies the reader that a list is coming. It is valuable to have a strategy for dealing with backwards lists because they are a natural reflection of how we think; we often figure out what the ‘issues’ themselves are before we know to characterize them as issues. It seems plausible to me that we will write ‘x, y, and z all matter in some way’ before we can write ‘the significant issues are x, y, and z’.  We just need to remember to switch these backwards lists around; once they have done their initial work in allowing us to understand the list we are trying to construct, we can rework them in a way that suits the needs of the reader.

This strategy is also helpful in dealing with transitions between sentences. If you find yourself using a lot of additive transition words (for instance, ‘also’, ‘in addition’, ‘moreover’), it may be helpful to go back and see how the various points relate to one another. When we analyze the internal relationships in our writing, we will find many different sorts of relationships, most of which will benefit from being made more explicit. One of those relationships could be that of a list. Since I don’t have room here for an elaborate example, let’s look at a version of the sentence we used last week:

Today’s educational leaders must provide instructional leadership. In addition, they must demonstrate moral leadership and support their staff. Long hours on the part of educators are necessary to improve student achievement. Also, they must exercise fiscal prudence.

A quick analysis of this passage would show the writer that these four sentences all concern things an educational leader must do. It would then be easy to reword to reflect that commonality:

Today’s educational leaders have multiple responsibilities: providing instructional leadership, demonstrating moral leadership, exercising fiscal prudence, supporting their staff, and working long hours to improve student achievement.

While this example was simple (and slightly exaggerated for effect), it does show how implicit lists can be identified in our writing after the fact. Once we have so identified them, we can turn them into explicit lists. And an explicit list is, of course, a list that the reader experiences ‘forwards’: first the announcement of the list and then the list items themselves.

The final point I want to make about lists—how we can use them to guide the reader through our text—is too long to tackle in this post. So come back next time when I’ll talk about how the internal organization of a list communicates structural information to the reader.


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