LibreOffice and the Literate Art of Bullet Lists

For most people, literacy means mastery of upper and lower case letters. However, there are a number of symbols used in everyday writing in English that few people formally master. Of these symbols, one of the most widely used is the bullet. Unlike most word processors, LibreOffice gives you full control over bullets, including offering a surprise or two.

However, before looking at the features for bullets, it helps to review the conventions for using bullets. To start with, bullets are used when you have a list in which the order is unimportant. For example, if you have several pieces of random advice, you should present them as bullets. By contrast, if you have a computer procedure in which certain steps must be done before others, you should present them as a numbered list. If you do not follow these conventions, you could be giving the wrong impression to readers — for instance,  if one item is to turn on a safety control, it clearly needs to come before other items, and you should use a numbered list.

Moreover, the presentation of a bullet list follows several conventions. Each list item is:

  • Introduced by a sentence above, either without punctuation at its end, or ending in a colon.
  • A grammatical completion of the sentence above.
  • Consistent with other items. It doesn’t matter if the item starts with a capital letter or not, nor whether it ends with a period or no punctuation so long as items are consistent.
  • You do not need to add “and” to the last item. However, in some contexts, such as academic writing, be aware that bullet points are considered too informal to use.

Using Bullet Lists in LibreOffice

Although you can enter bullets manually using the tool bar, for the most complete control, create them by using List styles in LibreOffice. Each list style has a Bullets tab that includes useful bullets, especially if you have sub-bullets for which you want different types of bullets. However, avoid the graphics on the Image tab unless you want a retro-1990s look. The only reason to use the Image style is for backwards compatibility with very old documents.


Avoid bullets on the Image tab unless you’re still lost in the Nineties.

If you want to customize a bullet list, the tabs that matter are Position and Options. Other tabs in a List style are for numbered lists and outline lists. On both the Position and Options tab, you can set features one level or a time, or all at once. Most of the time, setting only Level 1 is all you are likely to need.

Using the Position Tab

Use the Position tab to customize the spacing before bullets, and the distance between a bullet and a text item. The fields that matter for bullets are:

  • Numbering followed by: The space between the bullet and the text. Usually, the most useful choice is Tab Stop, which, which can be set exactly in the field directly below the drop-down list.
  • Aligned at: Sets the position for the bullet in relation to the left margin (which is 0 in any unit of measurement). Thanks to the fact that MS Word and HTML indent the bullet, many users think that is the convention, but it is not.
  • Indent at: Customize where the text of an item begins. Indent at should be at least the same as the distance in Aligned at. Don’t be afraid of generous white space, but, at the same time, do not make the setting so great that the bullet and the text are hard to read together.

The Position tab is all about spacing.

Using the Options Tab

The Options tab is for customizing a list. Begin by setting the type of list in the drop-down list of the Numbers field: Bullet, Graphics, or Linked Graphics. Graphics are for bullets made from graphics embedded in the file, and Linked Graphics for bullets made from external graphics. This choice changes the other fields that are available.

For ordinary bullets, you have the option to apply a Character style. The font used by the Character style affects the characters available to use as a bullet. The default Character style is OpenSymbol, but you can use a character from any font.

Selecting Graphics or Linked Graphics is useful when you want unusual bullets. Either can be useful to create callouts in a text. For example, you could create a List style that uses the graphic of a stop sign as a bullet to emphasis a caution or warning.

You can select the graphic, its size, and its alignment in relation to the baseline of the item’s text. Since most bullets are presented at a small size, a graphic to use for bullets should be simple and bold so that it is readable. Since the line spacing is geared to the height of the text, you may needed to open the Paragraph style for the items in the list, and change the line spacing. Probably, too, you want to change the spacing above and below the Paragraph style to avoid the graphic looking crowded.


Set the list to Bullet, Graphics, or Linked Graphics to create a bullet list.

Applying the List

A LibreOffice List style can be applied to selected text, just like a Character style. However, you save effort by associating a List style with a Paragraph style in the Numbering style of a Paragraph style’s Outline and Numbering tab.

However, this association means that editing the Position and Options tabs of a list style can change spacing options in the connected Paragraph style. In fact, it can even cause some fields to have a negative number. You can change settings in both the List and associated Paragraph style, but that can soon get confusing, so stick with the List style settings.


Attach a List style to a Paragraph style to apply it automatically

Using bullet lists is a modern part of literacy, especially on the web, where the tendency of lists to take up more space is irrelevant. If you are unclear how to use bullet lists, take the time to learn — and, when you do, LibreOffice and its List styles will be ready for whatever you want to do with them.