Sunday, November 7, 2010

Working with Headings

Whether you're writing a textbook or a journal or magazine article, you're going to use headings to distinguish between sections and subsections within the content. Good headings help break up the visual appearance of the page and help visually organize the content, both of which allow the reader to focus attention on each section.

Here, then, are some basic rules for crafting effective headings for textbooks (though they can also work for many other kinds of writing).

  • No “Introduction” headings. If you’re starting to write a chapter, the first block of actual body text is by definition your introduction. You needn’t label it as such, your reader will know intuitively what it is.

  • Keep headings short. Brevity becomes increasingly important the narrower the column of the final, published piece. A heading that might look fine in a Word document with 1-inch margins might take up two or three lines in a 3-column layout.

  • Make the meaning clear. An effective heading should clearly indicate the content to come. That means: No cute headings. Cute headings might work for some magazines, absolutely, but for a textbook, they’re almost always a no-no.

  • Use parallel headings, when appropriate. Parallel headings are those that possess the same characteristics; they all start with an action verb, they’re all gerunds, they’re all one word nouns, and so forth. When you have three or four headings in a row that all relate to the same concept, make sure all those headings are parallel in format. Here’s an example:

    • Preparing mentally for tests

      • Playing private detective

      • Using practice tests to prepare

  • Never put two headings in a row without content in between. Always put some kind of content under each heading. Otherwise why have a heading?

  • Use two subheadings at a minimum beneath each heading. Think of headings as bullet points or outline items; you wouldn’t have just one bullet or one item in an outline under a heading. So don’t do it with subheadings.

  • Never assume in the first line of text that the reader has read the heading. Readers don’t expect you to refer to a heading without being explicit. For instance, let’s say your heading is “Chronic Renal Failure.” Don’t start the body text with, “This is a long-term condition....” The word This is an unclear pronoun reference in this case. Start instead with, “Chronic renal failure is a long-term condition....”

  • Don’t use a colon after a heading. Colons after a heading is redundant. Headings are typically in a larger, bolder font and thus are already set up visually as an introduction to content.

  • Avoid unnecessary articles in headings. I’m big on deleting “the” and other articles from headings. In nearly all instances they’re unnecessary, and in a heading there should be nothing that isn’t absolutely necessary.