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Effective headings

This resource will introduce the use of headings in academic writing, including how to use headings correctly and what value they add to your writing.

What are headings?

Headings are signposts that help you structure longer pieces of writing and allow the reader easily navigate their way around a document. The type of headings used will depend on the format of your writing: for example, a case study will have different headings to a report. Make sure that:

  • the heading system is clear and logical
  • the sub-headings all have the same font style at that particular level
  • the wording of the headings and sub-headings is alike.

It is best to take a couple of minutes to work out a plan for your headings before you start.

Components of an effective heading

Graded levels

It is common for headings to be graded at levels to communicate a logical structure. Usually it is advisable to use a maximum of three levels, depending on the length of the document. Don’t forget that the aim of using headings is to make it easy for the reader to easily find their way around a written document – using too many headings and levels can create confusion.

Levels are created with the use of font type, font size, position, capital letters, boldface and underlining. You can follow a given pattern or make up your own system so long as it is consistent.

Example

Level 1: CAPITALS, bold, 14pt, centered, space below

Level 2: Lowercase, bold, 12pt, left justified, space below

Level 3: Lowercase, italics, 12pt, left justified, no space below

The headings used in this resource are a good example of levelling without the use of numbers; however, in longer documents such as reports or theses, numbering is extremely important to assist the reader in keeping track of what section of the document they are reading.

Information distributed into logical sections

Headings should be used to identify a section; they are not to be used for each paragraph. Your analysis of the question will be key to working out your sections and headings.

Example

Question: what are the competitive drivers involved in a differentiation strategy?

1. COMPETITIVE DRIVERS
1.1 Differentiation strategy and current operations
Definition of a differentiation strategy
Describe the difference of the theory in the previous heading to what is happening in your industry/business
1.2. New strategies
Provide the marker with what your group deems a profitable strategy
1.3. Justification
Provide reasons for this new strategy and offer evidence of your decision

Linked with the text

You should try to introduce the topic of your heading in the first paragraph following your heading. This will announce to the reader what will be coming up in that section. Remember that a heading does not speak for itself: the text following a heading should always restate and reinforce the main idea of that section, as in the example below.

Example
  1. Reward and recognition of teaching
    The reward and recognition of teaching has been a national focus in Australian higher education since…

Grammar

Headings are usually single words or short phrases without a full stop. The wording, style and punctuation need to be consistent when designing a heading system, especially the use of capital letters. This can be achieved by following these three rules:

  • ensure all headings are brief
  • ensure the wording of the heading is specific to the text that follows
  • follow a parallel structure (editex 2016)
Example

To follow a parallel structure, you need to follow a grammatically consistent pattern for each heading level throughout the document.

Using ‘ing’ phrasing for headings Using noun phrases for headings
  1. Defining teaching standards
  2. Determining criteria
  3. Proposing a framework
  1. Definitions of teaching standards
  2. Criteria for judging teaching standards
  3. Proposal for a framework
EXAMPLE

With capitalization, you have a choice of maximal or minimal capitalization.

  • With maximal capitalization, all words except articles, prepositions and conjunctions are capitalised.
    Eg. Rivalry among Existing Firms
  • With minimal capitalization, only the first word of the title and any proper nouns are capitalised.
    Eg. Rivalry among existing firms

When using headings do not:

  • use too many headings
  • change the style of headings within a document
  • number the headings unless asked, e.g. numbering is likely to be needed in a long report but not a short document
  • leave a heading at the bottom of the page by itself
  • stack headings (no text between them)
  • write headings more than one line long
  • use definite articles to begin headings (e.g. ‘A Function of Business X’ should be ‘Function of Business X’)

Further resources

References

Editex 2016, ‘What are headings and why are they important?’, webpage, Edittex, viewed 19 October 2016, .

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