Online Technical Writing: Headings

Specific Format and StyleFirst-Level Headings

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 a report or other 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

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 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 parallel. (See the section on parallelism for details.)

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 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

In this chapter, you use a specific style and format for headings. It is not, however, 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 in this book gives you some experience with one of the key requirements in technical writing-writing according to "specifications."

To see our "house style" for headings-the style and format for headings we 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.

Now, here are the specifications for headings in this chapter:

First-Level Headings

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.

Second-Level Headings

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.

Third-Level Headings

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.

Designing Your Own Headings

If you want to use your own style and format of headings, contact your instructor. Together, you two may be able to work out alternate heading specifications.

If you design your own style of headings, remember that the fundamental principle of heading design has to do with decreasing noticeability of headings, the lower the heading level. In any heading style, you'll notice the top-level heading (called first-level here) is the largest, darkest, boldest, most highly visible heading on the page. The tools you can use to achieve this greater or lesser degree of visibility include bold, italics, type size, different fonts, relationship to surrounding text, graphics elements attached to headings, and so on.

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.

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

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

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 our "house" style. Subordination refers to the level of headings. "Stacked" headings occur when there is no text between two consecutive headings.

Interested in courses related to this page or a printed version? See the resources page. Return to the main menu of this online textbook for technical writing.

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