Writing tip: Get your headings to speak for themselves

Posted on 23/02/2015 · Posted in Writing tips

Headings reveal the structure of a document to a reader. They help readers find information and to understand the information they are about to read better. Readers find question headings most useful, followed by statement headings that include nouns and verbs, for example: Filling out the Application. The least useful headings are topic headings such as Introduction, Scope, or General.

There are several tips and tricks for writing reader friendly headings. Let us explore one of them, namely the use of parallel structure in headings.

Using parallel structure in headings

Using parallel structure means using corresponding grammatical structure for headings in a particular section of a document, for example using only questions as headings or only verb phrases. It makes it is easier for users to understand the structure of the document if your headings look like this:

  • Are my credit card details safe?
  • Do I need to pay a deposit?
  • How long before the goods are delivered?
  • What if I want to return something?

However, using different heading structures for different levels of the document may be useful as it signals a change from top level to subtopic. Choose an appropriate heading structure for a particular level of heading in each major part of a document. One possible structure, for example, would be questions at the top level, but then verb phrases for the sub-topics, like this:

  • Are my credit card details safe?
  • How should I make payment?
    • Paying electronically
    • Paying a deposit
    • Including a reference number
    • Sending proof of payment
  • How long before the goods are delivered?
  • What if I want to return something?
    • Cancelling your order before the goods are delivered
    • Returning something that has already been delivered

 

Your reader will thank you – by reading your document.

 

(Adapted from Redish, G. Headings. [online].

Available: http://www. plainlanguage.gov/howto/guidelines/headings.cfm [2014, May 21].)