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I'm writing a formal document for my company where it'll be shared and used by a number of teams. Unfortunately, we don't have any official standard style guide to follow, so I've attempted to be as internally-consistent as possible.

For indentation, I opted to go for paragraph indenting as the majority of my paragraphs are 4-6 lines long and some sections of my document have several such paragraphs in sequence. While I might ultimately revisit this decision, I'm still wondering about the indentation rules for bulleted lists as I frequently encounter this situation.

In many situations I've needed to introduce a bulleted list with a 1-2 sentence paragraph leading to the list. What indentation should that introductory paragraph have relative to the other paragraphs and to the bulleted items in the list?

If my paragraphs weren't intended, the rules seem straightforward as no indentation is necessary.

Sentence leading up to the list:

  • Item 1

  • Item 2

But with indented paragraphs, the rules are less clear. If I indent my list-introduction paragraph as a regular paragraph, I end up with a lot of whitespace on the left. If I don't indent it, I end up with inconsistent indentation.

Here's an example from Word:

Screenshot showing an indented one-line introduction to a bulleted list that is then further indented

To me, this looks like a bit of a mess, but I'm unsure how to address it. Note that the introductory paragraph and the bulleted list have a separate focus, so I feel the paragraph break is appropriate.

What are the proper indentation rules around bulleted lists?

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    I was unclear on the difference between the technical-writing and business-writing tags, but given this is for a design spec I assumed the former was more appropriate. – Troyen Jun 18 at 1:10
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I couldn't find any mention anywhere I looked on how to style bulleted lists, but changing other stylings of your document might help.

For introductory paragraphs and abstracts, APA style does not indent. MLA and Chicago do indent. I couldn't find what Microsoft style recommends. I'm not sure if your company prefers to lean to any external style guide, but if I'm not strictly following any particular style guide, I prefer to not indent introduction paragraphs (not including those introducing lists, just the overall introductions). The lack of indentation subtly sets them apart.

Here's an example I quickly drew up. I deleted the indent to the intro paragraph and added an extra space under the intro: enter image description here

Regarding white space, a lot of it is preferable over inconsistency. White space might look a little odd in certain contexts, but inconsistency can negatively affect the flow and readability of the document.

I hope this helps!

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Generally you indent every paragraph that follows another paragraph. So in your example, you'd indent the paragraph before the list, but not the paragraph after the list. Agreed that it can look a little odd when the explainer paragraph is short, but you do it for consistency of approach. If it is way too distracting, you can try introducing a sub-subhead:

Subhead

Intro paragraph.

Listing fruits

Before shopping, it can be useful to assemble a list of the fruits you'll buy:

  • Apples
  • Oranges

...or use some sort of section divider if it makes sense in context:

Subhead

Intro paragraph.


Before shopping, it can be useful to assemble a list of the fruits you'll buy:

  • Apples
  • Oranges

...in both cases the explainer paragraph is preceded with something other than another paragraph, so it can be unindented.

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