Session 8: Using Meaningful Headings

Using headings and sub-headings adds useful information and helps make the text less intimidating by breaking it up. So, if you’re in the habit of inserting headings and sub-headings – that’s great!

What we’re focusing on in this session is maximizing the value of headings by making sure they’re meaningful to the reader.

Role of headings

Headings serve a number of important purposes, including:

  • Serving as aids to navigation – they orient readers, helping them understand where they are in the document and within the author’s argument, explanation, or thesis.
  • Summing up the writer’s thesis – this is one of the most important and overlooked uses for headings and sub-headings. By reading through the headings, the reader should be able to understand the author’s entire argument.
  • Making the page look better – one way they do this is by adding white space. Varying headings’ font style, size, and colour can also add graphic interest to the page.
  • Providing relief for the reader – they’re logical places for readers to pause. They also provide an easy-to-find place for readers to return to.

Misuses of heading

As I mentioned at the start of this session, headings can add useful information. A well-crafted heading distills – or summarizes in a few words – the information that follows. But headings are NOT a substitute for text. In other words, do not use the heading as a lead-in for the text that follows. (Beware: this happens a lot when people use bullet lists. We’ll talk about this again in the session on crafting vertical lists.)

Here’s an example of what I mean:

Honing Your Writing Skills Pays Dividends

Saving time is the biggest dividend. Whose time? Your readers’ time and yours….

In the example, the first sentence doesn’t make sense without reference to the heading. Put another way, the reader needs the information in the heading to make sense of the first sentence of the paragraph. Instead, the first sentence under the heading should read something like: Saving time is one of the biggest dividends from improving your writing.

One of the reasons it’s bad form to use headings as text-substitutes is because reviewers and editors sometimes tinker with headings. If the text below the heading depends on the heading to make sense, you’ll have to revise the text too. Can you say nightmare? Another reason it’s bad form to use headings as text-substitutes is because some readers simply skip headings – imagine their confusion!

Writing good headings

A good heading is both concise and informative. Many business writers I’ve worked with confuse concise with short. Concise means without unnecessary detail. Ensuring headings are short is not the goal. Indeed, of the two qualities, informative is really key.

Say, for example, you’re writing about your analysis of the pros and cons of a number of aspects of a transaction, including foreign investment. To help the reader easily identify different things you’ve analyzed, you decide to include sub-headings. One sub-heading you might include, therefore, is: “Foreign Investment”. That’s fine – it’s certainly better than no sub-heading. But, something like: “Risks of Foreign Investment” or “Benefits of Foreign Investment” is better. In this case, adding just a few extra words provides the reader with useful information about your conclusion with respect to foreign investments.

Formatting headings and sub-headings

Some organizations have strict rules about heading and sub-heading formats. If your company has such rules, you probably don’t have much flexibility. But, if you can set your own heading formats, here are a few rules of thumb to keep in mind:

  1. Add sub-headings to draw the reader’s attention to details and to help readers locate specific ideas under a main heading.
  2. Be sure that readers can quickly distinguish between headings and sub-headings. You can do this a number of ways, such as by:
  • using different fonts – perhaps a serif font (like Times New Roman) for headings and a sans serif font (like Ariel or Tahoma) for sub-headings;
  • using different font sizes;
  • using different colours;
  • varying the line spacing before and after different heading levels

Avoid extreme indenting of sub-headings – some word processing templates indent sub-headings, with each subsequent sub-heading level indented a bit more. This can be awkward because readers’ eyes naturally look for text to start at the left margin. If you indent sub-headings very much from the left margin, the sub-heads get virtually lost.

What’s in it for you?

So far, we’ve talked a lot about how headings are useful to readers. Carefully crafted headings are also a great help to the writer. A quick read through the headings provides you with a great opportunity to consider:

  • whether you’ve organized the information in a logical way, and
  • whether there are any gaps in information that you might want to go back and address.

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