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Using headings to improve visual readability

Heather Matsune
(Language Update, Volume 6, Number 1, 2009, page 17)

It takes more than eye-catching graphics to make a document visually effective. Headings make organization and structure obvious by providing the visual cues readers need to quickly scan a document and find the information they want. Here are some guidelines on how to make the most of headings.

Getting organized

Start setting up your heading hierarchy while you organize your ideas. As you divide your information, write a heading for each major topic. As you break down each topic into logical, understandable chunks, write subheadings, column headings and paragraph headings. If you normally make an outline before you start writing, you’re used to this type of activity—all you have to do now is bring the headings from your outline into the actual document. Sometimes when you aren’t sure what to write, determining what the different sections will be can help you figure out what you, and your readers, need to know.

Establish a hierarchy of headings

A typical document has a title plus three to five heading levels. Try to use fewer than six levels of headings. If you find yourself with complex hierarchies of headings, you may need to restructure—for instance, turning large subsections into their own sections.

Heading level styles

Each level has its own style, which can include font, font style (bold, italics), size, line spacing (single, 1.5), justification (left, centre) and capitalization (title case, sentence case1). These styles make it easy for readers to quickly identify the different levels. It’s important to apply heading level styles consistently throughout your documents, so readers always know how to scan for information.

Most word processors have default styles for heading levels; some use different fonts for each level, others use variations of the same font. You can also customize your own heading level styles.

Word processors offer a variety of fonts, but you don’t need to use more than two or three in a document. In fact, one clean simple font, such as Arial or Verdana, is often enough. Here’s a set of styles you can use without changing font:

Heading type Size Font style Justification Capitalization
title 18 pt bold left sentence case
level 1 16 pt bold left sentence case
level 2 14 pt bold left sentence case
level 3 12 pt bold left sentence case
level 4 10 pt bold left sentence case

Choosing your words

Headings need to be informative and specific, without going into as much detail as the text that follows them. Try to keep them to one line.

Choose the appropriate type of heading

Most headings come in the form of questions, statements or single words.

Question headings

If you can anticipate the questions your readers will ask, question headings are especially useful. For example, a heading such as "What should I do if I forget my password?" provides the most specific information. The question/answer format is also easy to scan. Avoid creating question headings where the answer is only one word.

Statement headings

Statement headings can be very specific too, but they don’t scan as well as questions. Indeed, a heading such as "Getting a new password" is specific, but not as eye-catching as a question.

One-word headings

One-word headings can be vague. If you use only one word, make sure its meaning and its relationship to the text that follows it are very clear. For example, avoid vague headings such as "Information" and "Questions."

Adhere to technical writing standards

Consistency, directness, conciseness and a personal tone are vital to technical and non-technical writing alike. But technical writing uses standard phrasing for certain headings.

Phrasing for headings in technical writing

Procedure topic headings are typically gerund phrases, and the actual procedure headings take an infinitive. How-to and imperative phrases are also acceptable for procedure headings. For example, the heading "How to create a temporary password" meets technical writing standards.

Phrasing for headings in non-technical writing

Although there are no specific rules, you can ensure that your headings contribute to overall readability by maintaining grammatical parallelism among same-level headings. For instance, make all your level 1 headings questions, all your level 2 headings how-to statements and your level 3 headings gerund phrases:

Does your child exercise enough?

How to motivate your child

Encouraging your child to be physically active
Making it look good

A document needs to be at least 50% white space to be visually readable.

Use left justification and sentence case

Document titles are the only headings that are sometimes centre justified and written in title case, but increasingly even they are moving left and adopting sentence case.

Making reading easier

It takes less effort for readers to start from the same point on each line than to jump from left to centre and back again. Left justifying all parts of a document gives readers a predictable starting point. Furthermore, it maximizes the amount of white space running down the right side of the page.

It also takes less effort to read headings in sentence case than in all capital letters. Reading slows down with these headings because the words lose their shape and look more like LONG STRINGS OF LETTERS.

Preventing inconsistencies

Using title case can produce inconsistencies in capitalization. For example, it’s hard to tell whether the nouns in this heading are proper or common: Submitting Disclosure Policy Forms to the Policy Officer. If you were writing or translating a similar document, and you saw the heading in title case, you might assume that the nouns are proper and then capitalize them in the body of your text or translation. But when the heading is written in sentence case, it’s clear that the nouns are common: Submitting disclosure policy forms to the policy officer. Using sentence case in headings cuts down on the research time and confusion that inconsistent capitalization causes. For the same reason, capitalize proper nouns that appear in a sentence case heading, just as you would in the body text.

Frame headings with white space

Don’t increase heading font size to fill up an entire line. Leave lots of white space around headings to help readers scan and to keep your document from becoming dense.

Spacing conventions
  • Leave more white space above a heading than below it.
  • Leave one line of space between a heading and the text that follows it, but not between a subheading and the text that follows it.
Getting the most out of a good document

Planning, designing and writing clear and effective documents is hard work, but your readers benefit from your efforts. So, if you create a particularly successful document, reuse it by turning it into a template for future projects. If you work with an in-house graphic design or desktop publishing team, ask them to help. In the long run, this saves time and money and helps keep your documents consistent.

Note
  • Back to the note1 Title case: The words in English titles are traditionally all capitalized, except for internal articles, prepositions, and conjunctions. [http://www.nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/Title-case].

    Sentence case in a general sense describes the way that capitalization is used within a sentence. Sentence case also describes the standard capitalization of an English sentence, i.e. the first letter of the sentence is capitalized, with the rest being lower case (unless requiring capitalization for a specific reason, e.g. proper nouns, acronyms, etc.). [http://www.nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/Sentence-case].