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Monday, January 17, 2005
One major aspect of the e-editor's work that is never written about or discussed in polite society is the way lists are handled.

Yet how an e-editor chooses to present listed material can make a huge difference to the impact and clarity of the final communication.

There are potent cultural assumptions embedded in the reader's response to any list.

For example, unless there is an extremely strong and unusual reason for it to be otherwise, the reader will always assume that a list is presented in order of relevance or importance.

If a writer is talking about EU markets for business or consumer products — whether they are servers, shoes or mobile phones — the reader will expect to see lists that begin with Germany, the UK, France and Italy, as they have far bigger populations and economies than the other countries.

A list that starts off "Austria, Belgium, Denmark..." needs to have a very good excuse for mentioning these tiny markets (each with five to ten million inhabitants) ahead of the big countries.

Germany has 82 million people, the UK 60 million, France 59 million and Italy 58 million. In almost any context or product category, these huge economies are just more important than the tiddlers.

Listing the EU states alphabetically is fair enough in the rarefied milieu of Brussels and Strasbourg protocols and diplomacy. In anything remotely resembling the real world, it's just nonsense.

There is a good reason for feeling uncomfortable and short-changed when faced with a list that defaults to dumb alphabeticism.

Properly ordered lists convey implicit information. The EU list that begins "Germany, the UK, France, Italy..." actually tells readers, tactfully, that France has more people than Italy, which is not a matter of universal knowledge.

The big world list that begins "China, India, US, Indonesia, Brazil, Russia..." is even more significant. Not one person in 50 could tell you that Brazil has now overtaken Russia, which is losing population year by year, to become the fifth most populous country.

So the mere shape of a list can politely educate and inform the reader. Since the alphabetical running order is always the same, the chance to convey this extra information is completely lost, and an element of understanding is immediately forfeited.

Failing to stack items in order of significance is simply unnatural. Randomised and alphabetical lists tend to look stupid. Manchester United is not the 13th most important club in the Premiership. No-one sends out party invitations to their "cousins, nephews, parents, neighbours, brothers and sisters, aunts and children". Survival in the desert requires "water, shelter, food and anti-glare sunglasses", not "anti-glare sunglasses, food, shelter and water". Any deviation from the natural or expected order of a list draws attention to itself and distracts the reader — the cardinal sin in the e-editor's world.

Most people have now cottoned on to the idea of using bullet point lists — especially on Web pages — to improve readability, avoid repetition and help them manage dense material. The shape on the page is right. Now we need a lot more thought about how the information is ordered within those lists.
The live blog for everybody who lives and dies by the word. The UK's top guide to editing better and getting more respect for it is at www.e-editor.co.uk.

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