Using headings wisely


  • help readers to find what they want and decide whether they want to read a particular section
  • help an author to organise material.

Headings can be categorised into levels. Most documents use about 3 levels of heading; some documents use up to 5. Each level should be given a clearly differentiated appearance to show the hierarchy.

The frequency of headings depends on the content of the text. The general rule is to have at least 1 heading every 250 words (eg 2 or 3 headings on a page of text with about 500 words). However, if the text has a longer section that needs to be kept together – for example, a section that describes a process – you may not want to break up the text with additional headings.

This section covers:

Heading basics

Shorter headings are usually better, especially for web content. However, headings should provide a meaningful description of the content to follow, so should be long enough to provide clear information on the section’s contents. Try to start headings with keywords, not articles like ‘the’ or ‘an’ (see Writing informative headings for more information).

Use minimal capitalisation in headings (ie initial capitals only for the first word and any proper nouns); full capitals are hard to read. Do not underline headings, since this is also hard to read, and may be mistaken for a hyperlink in online documents:

How to grow your own vegetable garden



How To Grow Your Own Vegetable Garden

How to grow your own vegetable garden

The structure of headings should be parallel (see Using parallel structure). For example, if most headings are statements and one is a question, the question should be changed to a statement to be parallel with the others.

Use styles in Microsoft Word or your chosen word-processing program to format headings. This will ensure that the paragraph style is consistent and make it easy to create a table of contents. Using paragraph styles is also important for accessibility.

Make sure you clearly differentiate the heading styles from one another. Using a clear progression of font styles from more to less prominent helps your audiences see the structure of the document. Some ways to differentiate headings include font size, italics, bold, and space above and below the heading:

Often, subsection headings are numbered. Do not include a final stop after the numbers (ie use ‘1.1.1 Heading’, not ‘1.1.1. Heading’), and avoid numbering headings below heading level 3 (ie do not use ‘ Heading’). However, some specific types of documents (eg some legal documents) may require numbering right down to the level of individual paragraphs:

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Arranging content under headings

The text of a heading should accurately reflect the content that comes under it. Group like information together to create the main sections or chapters of a publication, and use subheadings to nest subsidiary information underneath these main headings.

Ensure that parallel topics are given the same level of attention within a publication, or explain why more detail is provided for one topic than another. This should lead to an even spread of chapters, main sections and subsections within a publication. Some might be somewhat longer or shorter than others, but there should be no major unexplained disparities (such as one chapter of 100 pages and one on an apparently parallel topic of only 5 pages). Similarly, if you use several levels of subheadings in one chapter, do not switch to using only level 1 and 2 headings in another chapter unless it is very clear why this change is necessary.

An easy way to check if the headings are arranged logically is to prepare a table of contents that contains all the levels of headings in the document (if you have used styles in your document, it is easy to do this in your word processing software by using the Insert Table of Contents function). This will quickly show you whether your headings are of parallel construction (eg all questions or all statements), accurately trace the ‘story’ you want to convey, and show whether sections and subsections are of a similar length and scope.

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Writing informative headings

Writing headings to provide more information can often improve document navigation. Good headings can provide enough information for readers to get an idea of the document’s contents without reading it all. Informative headings are particularly useful for online content and documents, as readers often scan screen content.

Ideally, your headings will tell the ‘story’ of your document when seen in a table of contents:

For a book on cat ownership – Your guide to cat ownership

1  The right breed: selecting the cat for you

2  Your new cat: preparing your home

3  Your kitten: understanding its needs

4  Your older cat: caring for cats aged 10+

is more informative than

1  Cat breeds

2  New cats

3  Kittens

4  Older cats

Documents for a general audience often benefit from using sentences or questions, rather than noun phrases, as headings. This can provide more interest and guidance to the content of the section:

Our companies face greater opportunities, but fiercer competition   not   Potential business growth

Technology will continue to transform our world   not   New technology

Why is vaccination important?   not   Rationale

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