What to do with lists

A student emailed me with a question about how to use lists strategically in his writing.

I tend to use many lists in my writing as I find it the easiest way to include related information. I still need to include some in my writing, but I feel I have too many. Is there any way around this issue? Below is an example. Thanks.

“130 pieces of worked bone have also been recovered including handles, awls, spatulas, smoothers, figurines, and spoons.”

This is what I told him.

At the moment, your list reads like ‘here is a random sequence of stuff I found in a trench’.

I have three suggestions for these kinds of lists, any of which might be helpful.

The first is to split the list from the main sentence. That way the casual, ‘big picture’ reader can get the main information and skip the detail; but the expert reader can find the information.

130 pieces of worked bone have also been recovered. Examples include: handles, awls, spatulas, smoothers, figurines, and spoons.

The second is to shorten the list by grouping the items into generalised nouns.

130 pieces of worked bone have also been recovered including tools, cooking implements and decorative items.

A further way to make your lists more meaningful is to give more contextual information.

… including over 40 handles, 10 awls, and a small number of spatulas, smoothers, figurines, and spoons.

Or

… As would be expected from a site of this kind, the pieces include awls, smoothers, spatulas, spoons, figurines and handles of unidentified objects.

I hope this list of lists is helpful!

How do you deal with having to impart long sequences of detailed information to your readers?

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