08 May 2012

The power of headings and subheadings

Good layout improves readability. A dense, difficult to read piece can be simply and easily improved by the use of white spaces. You can gain white space by using headings and subheadings, short paragraphs and bulleted lists.

Placing subheadings through your work has the added bonus of communicating your messages at a glance. This is particularly important if you're writing for people who skimread on a tablet.

Do questions work as subheadings?
Some people use questions as subheadings. This technique is powerful if your question is specific and you ask a question which readers would like an answer to.

     Do you close the bathroom door even when you're the only one home?
     Psychology Today

On the other hand, poorly worded questions which are general and vague do not inspire people to read on.
     What do you do if you have a problem?

Statements as subheadings
Brief statements that sum up what the following paragraphs are about also make effective subheadings because the reader can tell at a glance what the section is about. Ideally, subheadings should be descriptive phrases using key terms, rather than bland single word subheadings that don't mean much.

  • Curfew
  • Curfew imposed after unrest

Cater for different types of readers. Some people skimread headings first and others skip them completely. So don't treat your subheadings as part of your text. It's OK to repeat the subheading's message in the following sentence.

One-or-two word headings
Short phrases with specific words are usually better than one-or-two word subheadings, but many templates have one-or-two-word headings to break documents into major sections. These headings are often mandatory (e.g. Background, Recommendations).

Read your subheadings separately
Once you have finished writing, read your subheadings separately and see if they are telling your key messages. If they are, then your subheadings are doing a good job.

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