March 26 2010

Working with numbered lists

by Barbie in Writing

Yesterday, we talked about working with lists in our documents—namely, bulleted lists. Another useful type of list to use is a numbered list, and this is particularly helpful when explaining procedures or steps in technical documentation. Generally, use numbered lists only when the steps should be followed in a specific, sequential order. For examples of procedural lists, check out user manuals and help files.

Here are a few ways to make the most of numbered lists:

Use active verbs.

Since numbered lists indicate a procedure that the reader will perform, engage the reader by choosing active voice. Rather than saying “Windows Explorer should be open on your desktop,” say “Double-click Windows Explorer to open it.”

Use the imperative.

The reader is performing the action, making this the ideal context for using the implied “you” as the subject.

Break down the steps.

Make sure each step offers only one action. Readers are going to be referring to your document while troubleshooting or putting something together, so you want to make the steps easy to follow. Readers might overlook an important action buried in the third sentence of an item. Remember, readers want a step-by-step guide.