Headings are the titles and subtitles you see within the actual text of much professional scientific, technical, and business writing. Headings are like the parts of an outline that have been pasted into the actual pages of the document.

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 straight text.

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.

Your task in this chapter is to learn how to use headings and to learn the style and format of a specific design of headings.

General Guidelines for Headings

Well-designed headings can help not only readers but also writers understand the organization of a document.

In this chapter, you use a specific style of headings. This style is the standard, required format if you take a course that uses this online textbook. If you want to use a different style, contact your instructor. Here are some specific guidelines on headings (see the figures at the end of this chapter for illustrations of these guidelines):

  • Use headings to mark off the boundaries of the major sections and subsections of a report.
  • Use exactly the design for headings described here and shown in the illustrations in this chapter. Use the same spacing (vertical and horizontal location), capitalization, punctuation, and typography (bold, italics, etc..
  • 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 can apply to multiple paragraphs.)
  • For short documents, begin with the second-level heading; skip the first-level.
  • Text with three levels of headings

    Heading style and format, standard for courses using this online textbook. If you want to use a different format, contact your instructor.

  • Make the phrasing of headings parallel. In the following illustration, notice that the second-level headings use the how, what, when, where, why style of phrasing. The third-levels use noun phrases. (See the section on parallelism for details.)
  • 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 starts 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

The style and format for headings shown in this chapter is not the "right" or the "only" one, just one among many. It's important to use this style, however, because that's the way it is for many technical writers—they must write according to a "house" style. Most organizations expect their documents to look a certain way. Using the style and format for headings described here gives you some experience with one of the key requirements in technical writing—writing according to "specifications."

Outlines and headings

Headings and outlines: headings function like outline elements inserted into the text at those points where they apply.

To see the "house style" for headings—the style and format for headings you will use—see the illustrations in this chapter. Pay close attention to formatting details such as vertical and horizontal spacing, capitalization, use of bold, italics, or underlining, and punctuation. Notice that you can substitute bold for underlining.

Headings occur within the body of a document. Don't confuse headings with document titles. Although titles may look like first-level headings in smaller documents, think of them as separate things. Now, here are the specifications for headings in this chapter.

Note: To make things less complicated, consider the document title as a title not as a first-level heading. They certainly look the same, except that the title could be prefaced by a roman numeral. In short documents such as those you write for technical writing classes, use a centered title and then start with second-level headings in the body of the document.

First-Level Headings

First-level headings are for formal reports with multiple sections (or "chapters"). If you are writing a brief document, start with second-level headings in the body of the document. Follow these guidelines for first-level headings:

  • Make first-levels all-caps.
  • Use Roman numerals with first-levels.
  • 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.

Note: In short documents such as those you write for technical writing classes, use a centered title and then start with second-level headings in the body of the document.

Second-Level Headings

In smaller documents (such as a two-page set of instructions), first-level headings are too much. Start with second-level headings in the body of these smaller documents. Follow these guidelines for second-level headings:

  • Make second-levels headline-style caps (also called "title case"). See title case.
  • 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 more vertical space above this level of heading than below it. For example, use the equivalent of 2 blank lines between previous text and second-levels and the equivalent of 1 blank line between second-levels and the following text. Notice that the default margins Microsoft Word uses is 10 pts between a regular paragraph and a second-level heading (Heading 2) and 2 pts below.

    Note: This idea follows the concept of proximity as presented in Robin Williams's Non-Designer's Design Book.

Note: If you prefer to make third-level headings standalone like second-levels, they may not be visually distinct enough from second-levels. If so, put a top border on second-levels, as you can see in this chapter.

Third-Level Headings

Third-level headings are "run in to" the paragraph they introduce. Follow these guidelines for third-level headings:

  • Make third-levels sentence-style caps (init-cap only the first word and any proper nouns).
  • Use bold for third-levels including the period.
  • End third-levels with a period, which is also bold.
  • Do not include outlining apparatus such as "A." or "B." or "1." or "2." with third-levels.
  • Either indent third-levels standard paragraph indentation, or just start third-levels flush left.
  • Do not make third-levels a grammatical part of sentences that follow.
  • Whether third-levels are indented or not, start all following lines flush left. Don't indent the entire paragraph.
  • Use the standard spacing between paragraphs for paragraphs that contain third-levels.

Note: If you need a fourth level of heading, consider using italics instead of bold on the run-in heading format.

Using Word-Processing Styles for Headings

If you manually format each individual heading using the guidelines presented in the preceding, you'll find you're doing quite a lot of repetitive work. The styles provided by Microsoft Word, OpenOffice Writer, and other software save you this work. You simply select Heading 1, Heading 2, Heading 3, and so on. You'll notice the format and style are different from what is presented here. However, you can design your own styles for headings. See Customizing Styles for Headings.

Common Problems with Headings

When you design your own heading style, be careful about going overboard with fancy typographical elements. Also, continue to use the guidelines presented in this chapter; they apply to practically any design. And finally, use your heading design consistently throughout your document.

Common problems with headings

Common problems with headings: picture these outline items in the actual text.

More common problems with headings

A few more common heading problems: nonstandard capitalization, incorrect subordination, and "stacked" heads. There's nothing "wrong" about the caps style used in the first version; it's just not the "house" style. Subordination refers to the level of headings. "Stacked" headings occur when there is no text between two consecutive headings.