|Headings are an important feature of
professional technical writing: they alert readers to upcoming topics
and subtopics, help readers find their way around in long reports and
skip what they are not interested in, and break up long stretches of
Headings are also useful for writers. They keep you organized and focused on the topic. When you begin using headings, your impulse may be to slap in the headings after you've written the rough draft. Instead, visualize the headings before you start the rough draft, and plug them in as you write.
The following presents some of the standard guidelines on headings.
- With online information, you want to use a lot of headings, perhaps one heading for every two to three paragraphs. Of course headings can be overdone: lots of headings with only one or two sentences per heading does not work.
- Design headings so that they clearly indicate their level. Use type size, type style, color, bold, italics, alignment in such a way that the level of the heading is obvious. ("Levels" of headings are like levels in an outline: first level would correspond to the roman numerals; second level, to the capital letters; and so on.)
- Make headings descriptive of the sections they introduce. Headings like "Technical Background" don't tell anybody anything.
- Make headings parallel in phrasing. Parallelism sends readers important clues as to whether the section in similar in nature to the preceding ones.
- Avoid "lone headings" -- it's the same concept as having an "A" without a "B" or a "1" without a "2" in outlines.
- Avoid "stacked headings" -- that's two or more consecutive headings without intervening text.
- Avoid referring to headings with pronouns in the text following headings. If you have a heading like "Configuring the Software," don't follow it with a sentence like "This next phase..."
- Consider using the "hanging-head" format to make headings stand out more and to reduce the length of regular-text lines. In the hanging-head design, some or all of the headings are on the left margin, while all text is indented one to two inches.
- Consider using "run-in" headings for your lowest-level heading. It can be difficult to rely solely on type style and size to indicate heading levels. A run-in heading "runs into" the beginning of a paragraph and ends with a period. You can use some combination of bold, italic, or color for these headings.
- Use headings to mark off the boundaries of the major sections and subsections of a report.
- Use consistent designs for headings. Use the same spacing (vertical and horizontal location), capitalization, punctuation, and underlining. (You can, however, do a one-for-one substitution of bold for underlining.)
- Try for 2 to 3 headings per regular page of text. Don't overdo headings: for example, a heading for each of a series of one- or two-sentence paragraphs. (Also, you don't need a heading per every paragraph; normally, an individual heading applies to multiple paragraphs.)
- For short documents, begin with the second-level heading; skip the first-level.
- Make the phrasing of headings self-explanatory: instead of "Background" or "Technical Information," make it more specific, such as "Physics of Fiber Optics."
- Make headings indicate the range of topic coverage in the section. For example, if the section covers the design and operation of a pressurized water reactor, the heading "Pressurized Water Reactor Design" would be incomplete and misleading.
- Avoid "lone" headings-any heading by itself within a section without another like it in that same section. For example, avoid having a second-level heading followed by only one third-level and then by another second-level. (The third-level heading would be the lone heading.)
- Avoid "stacked" headings-any two consecutive headings without intervening text.
- Avoid pronoun reference to headings. For example, if you have a third-level heading "Torque," don't begin the sentence following it with something like this: "This is a physics principle....."
- When possible, omit articles from the beginning of headings. For example, "The Pressurized Water Reactor" can easily be changed to "Pressurized Water Reactor" or, better yet, "Pressurized Water Reactors."
- Don't use headings as lead-ins to lists or as figure titles.
- Avoid "widowed" headings: that's where a heading occurs at the bottom of a page and the text it introduces start at the top of the next page. Keep at least two lines of body text with the heading, or force it to start the new page.
Headings: Specific Format and Style
Follow these guidelines for first-level headings:
- Make first-levels all-caps.
- Use Roman numerals with first-levels.
- Either underline the words but not the Roman numeral, or bold the entire heading including the Roman numeral.
- Make first-levels centered on the page.
- Start a new page whenever you have a first-level heading.
- Begin first-levels on the standard first text line of a page.
- Leave 3 blank lines between first-levels and the first line of text.
Follow these guidelines for second-level headings:
- Make second-levels headline-style caps.
- Underline or use bold on second-levels.
- Do not include outlining apparatus such as "A." or "B." or "1." or "2." with second-levels.
- Make second-levels flush left.
- Leave 2 blank lines between previous text and second-levels.
- Leave 1 blank line between second-levels and the following text.
Follow these guidelines for third-level headings:
- Make third-levels sentence-style caps.
- Underline or use bold for third-levels (but don't underline the period).
- End third-levels with a period.
- Do not include outlining apparatus such as "A." or "B." or "1." or "2." with third-levels.
- Indent third-levels 5 spaces (or the standard paragraph indentation).
- Do not make third-levels a grammatical part of sentences that follow.
- Use the standard spacing between paragraphs for paragraphs that contain third-levels.
What to Avoid:
Avoid using headings that are catchy rather than informative; for example, the following subheadings, although catchy and cute, detract from the serious informative intent of the following report.
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