Structural Lists

This post will be the last one for a few weeks. Explorations of Style will return in the first week or two of August. If you have any ideas for topics that you would like to see addressed in future posts, please feel free to leave your questions in the comments below. Have a great summer!

If you can stand it, I am going to talk about using lists one more time. (Then I’m going to stop before I have to relaunch this blog as Explorations of Lists.) As I said in the first post on lists, they are an inevitable by-product of the complexity of academic material. Consider this example, which we have seen before, of a simple list:

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.

After reading that passage, my expectation would be that these seven points will not be important in what follows. That is, the author wanted the audience to know a bunch of things about educational leaders but isn’t planning to devote any more time to those individual points. You can easily imagine that the next sentence would build on the overall point of the previous one without dealing in the specifics (for example, ‘Given the complexity of this role, educational leaders often …’).

Lists, however, aren’t just ways of describing detailed material. They can also be ways of structuring our writing. That is, lists can do more than just list stuff; lists can also establish crucial information that will be used to structure later parts of the text. The key to these ‘structural lists’ is that the reader is getting useful guidance on how to read the text. Contrast these four (deliberately simplified) lists:

Blood is composed of erythrocytes, leucocytes, and blood platelets.
Blood is composed of three types of cells: erythrocytes, leucocytes, and blood platelets.
Blood is composed of three types of cells: one, erythrocytes; two, leucocytes; and, three, blood platelets.
This section discusses the three types of blood cells: one, erythrocytes; two, leucocytes; and, three, blood platelets.
In the first sentence, we see simple information about blood composition. We can’t tell, from this sentence alone, whether this is a passing reference or whether we are likely to hear more about these three components of blood. The second sentence places more emphasis on the fact that there are three types of cells; even if we don’t hear much more about each individual type, we may see further discussion of the fact that a tripartite division exists. The third sentence–with its use of numbering–is telling the reader to pay particular attention to these three things. If they are not discussed in what follows or if they are discussed in a different order, the reader will be disappointed. Incidentally, this sentence structure would also easily accommodate additional information; for instance, it would be easy to provide a definition, explanation, or example of each type. The fourth example goes beyond an implicit indication of the importance of the division; its use of metadiscourse tells the reader explicitly that this division into three types of cells will be used to organize the rest of the section. Generally, sentences like the fourth one are written retrospectively, during the editing process; when we are creating a first draft, we frequently discuss a series of things without necessarily grasping the internal structure. Once we start to revise and thus begin to perceive (or develop) that internal structure, we can add in useful structural lists that tell the reader what to expect.
Let me end by addressing one question that often arises in this context. Once you have created a structural list, you must be careful about creating sub-lists. In other words, once you have said that three things are coming, you must be very clear about any subsequent use of numbering. If the individual items on your first list can themselves be broken down into a number of parts, your readers need to be able to understand at all times which list they are in the midst of. Consider this generic example:
This issue has three key elements: X, Y, and Z. We will begin with a discussion of X. Scholarly research into X usually takes three distinct forms. First, X is seen as …. Second, X is seen as …. Third, X is seen as …. The second element of this issue is Y.
In this example, the final sentence is designed to tell readers that they are back in the main list. If, instead, this last sentence had begun with a ‘second’, it would have followed awkwardly on from the ‘third’ that immediately preceded it. In my experience, however, it is common for writers to neglect to tell readers whether they are reading an element of the broader list or a subpart of one of those elements of the broader list. Since creating lists, as I keep saying, is an inevitable and valuable feature of academic writing, we all need to be sure that we are making the divisions and subdivisions in our writing crystal clear to our readers.

7 responses to “Structural Lists

  1. another very helpful post. since you offered, i’d love a post on metadiscourse. it’s skill not easily taught in the writing handbooks…but it’s super important. thanks.

    • That’s a great idea, Ari. I agree that it is an important topic that isn’t often addressed effectively. I’ll have to give it some thought!

  2. Anthony Haynes

    An observant and thoughtful post. May I suggest some related summer reading?

  3. Pingback: Structural Lists | Academic Writing |

  4. i am wholly and heartedly enjoying your blog. thank you!
    suggestion for an upcoming topic: using first person, I, in academic writing.

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