It is not enough to be able to read. You have to know how to read. In other words, it requires some critical thinking. The internet is a good example, especially when it comes to the difference between guidelines and rules.
A lot of online material concerns ways to do things: tips, how to’s, and rules. When creating material like this we inevitably want people to read it. We want them to visit the site. We want a return on our investment.
We want numbers.
That’s normal. Sometimes we want the numbers because they can translate into revenue. Sometimes we simply want the satisfaction of knowing people have seen and hopefully read what we put our effort into.
So we often present what we have to say as rules. Sometimes we do so explicitly. “Ten rules for writing effective copy.” Sometimes we do it implicitly by calling them tips. In both cases, we often put them in bullet form.
The problem with bullets
In speaking of Powerpoint presentations (“Powerpoint makes us stupid”–these bullets can kill), Seth Godin states the problem of bullet points: they look like gospel even when they aren’t.
- bullets are always simple
- bullets are always true
- bullets are true because they are simple
- anything simple must be true
As Seth points out, these are true because they look like they are true — even when they are not. They appear to have authority because they are:
The problem is that, even when they are true, they are not always true. They are guidelines masquerading as rules. The truth is that context determines whether they are accurate or not. As a reader, therefore, you have to be aware of this and think of them critically.
Bullets are an organizational device
Bullets are a tool we use to chunk thoughts into categories. When we use bullets in number from, it is implied that they are sequential.
The chunks we present as bullets are really executive summaries. Each represents a much more detailed account of what they are about. And all should be accompanied by an asterisk that leads to a note saying, “This is often true but not always.”
Brevity is important online. Bullets help us to be brief. However, they are never the whole story.
As a reader, you have a responsibility to read what is presented and to know when and where what you read applies. This isn’t to say what you read is wrong; it is often correct – but not always. Your responsibility is to look at it critically, put it in the context of your situation, and then determine if it applies or not.
If you take them as easy, one-size-fits-all road maps, you’ll eventually find yourself lost.