Lists: Keep them Short; Use Bullets.

Oxford college eights training early on a November morning

This picture, which I took a few weeks ago,  reminds me of a story I heard when I was an impressionable undergraduate. Like many such stories, it sought to celebrate the extraordinary mental capacities of Oxford dons. The story was about overhearing  a snippet of conversation between two dons walking in Christchurch Meadow, which is on the left bank of the river in the photograph. The snippet was “…and ninthly….”.

The snippet encapsulated the idea that an Oxford don could perform the extraordinary feat of constructing and delivering a list of nine separate arguments, during a spontaneous conversation. Indeed the story leaves open the possibility that there were more than nine arguments because the conversation continued after the snippet.

The commonest mistakes in research-grant writing arise from the implicit assumption that the grant will be read by superhumans with the extraordinary mental capacity of this apocryphal don. Superhumans may read your grant application, but they will not make the decision, so you should not write for them. The decision will be made by a grants committee. They are ordinary people.

A grants committee cannot follow a long list of arguments. And if they cannot follow your arguments, they will ignore them. A big part of the task of writing a grant application is making sure that what you write is clear enough and simple enough for the committee to appreciate it and understand it.

This post explains that lists in a grant application should obey two rules:-

  • Lists should have fewer than five items.
  • Lists should be formatted, for example by using bullets, so that each item stands out.

Lists Should Have Fewer than Five Items

This rule is more generous than the rule I use myself. When I write a list in a grant application, I get nervous if it has more (or fewer) than three items and I find a way of reducing or expanding it it to three items. Before I tell you how to expand and reduce lists, I should explain why three is the perfect number of list items.

Three is the perfect number of list items because it is the minimal list. It is enough items to justify creating a list, but not so many that a speaker (or listener) is likely to forget an item or get the order wrong. The first step of the decision process is a short oral presentation of your grant application to the committee, who probably haven’t read it but who will probably try to read it during the presentation. If you have a few lists in your application (such as your research goals and your work packages) it allows the presenter to use a bit of rhetoric and to give the impression that they are giving a complete picture – “first …., second…, and finally….” without exceeding their ability to replicate a complex and poorly understood argument.

If you feel you need a list and you only have two items, you must expand your list. You can either split one of the items in two, or break down your topic in a different way, so that you arrive naturally at a three item list. In a grant application you probably need lists for the following categories:-

  • Research goals.
  • Aims
  • Objectives
  • Research questions
  • Hypotheses
  • Work Packages

If you have more than three items to list, you must get rid of some of them. You can omit items, combine items or create hierarchical ‘lists of lists’. In the example above, aims, hypotheses, and research questions are all different ways of expressing research goals and so you would only use one of them, unless the funding agency asks you to use more than one, which several of the UK research councils do. For example, the Social and Economic Research Council ask you two write about your aims and about your research questions, as if they were completely different. I always make it clear that each aim is also a research question.

Lists Should be Formatted

The reason lists should be formatted is very simple. The reader should be able to separate the items and see how many there are at a glance. If a list is written without any formatting, separating the items requires careful inspection. Most readers of a grant application do not have the time to do this. And they won’t.

Why did I relax my rule in this blog post?

Finally,  I should explain why, if I truly believe that three items is the perfect list length, I relaxed the rule for this blog post. And why did I then break even the relaxed version of the rule in writing the post: one of the bullet lists has six items.

I relaxed the rule to make it easy for you. My consultancy clients always complain when I try to persuade them to follow the strict three item rule. I don’t want you to complain, so I will allow you to create lists of four (or two) items in your grant applications if you want to. But you should bear in mind that if your grant application is competing with one that I have written, mine will have perfect, three-item lists and yours will be at a disadvantage.

I have put a six item bullet list in this blog post because it is a blog post, not a grant application. I do not want you to be able to tell all the details of my blog post to your friends in a conversation. I want you to stumble and forget some of the details so that you will tell them that they have to read the post themselves!