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Using headings


(Click for a hint)


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(Click for a hint)

Headings are standard for some written forms (e.g. report writing, case studies). However, lecturers can be divided about whether they allow/prefer you to use headings in your academic essays. Some lecturers prefer headings while others don't want you to use headings. You will need to check your lecturer's preference. If you do use headings, then use them wisely and correctly.

This workshop:

Key words: report writing, signposts, headings, heading levels, sub-headings, parallel structure, maximal & minimal capitalisation

About using headings

Most students who have just completed secondary studies come to university with the firm belief that you should not use headings in essay writing. The use of headings in formal writing was once restricted to business style writing, such as report writing. However, in more recent times, headings are often used in formal academic writing such as books and journals. Also, texts on Internet are easier to read on screen if they have headings.

Headings are signposts that focus the reader on the most important content in a piece of writing. Provided that they are well structured, headings make longer pieces of writing easier to write and easier to read (for the marker). Look at headings systems in your unit reading material and you will get a 'feeling' for their structure and suitability.

Exercise 1: Recognising the appropriate use of headings

It's easy to see why you need a few rules to help you develop a good system of headings. Compare the following sets of headings then answer the questions that follow:

Essay topic: Using headings

Heading set 1 Heading set 2

INTRODUCTION

HEADING HIERARCHIES

(sub-headings for this section)
Division of headings and text
Heading levels
Isolated headings

EFFECTIVE WORDING FOR HEADINGS

(sub-headings for this section)
Length of headings
Informative wording
Parallel structure and content

CONCLUSION

INTRODUCTION

What are the heading hierarchies?

(sub-headings for this section)
Division of headings and text
Heading levels
Isolated headings

Effective WORDING for HEADINGS

(sub-headings for this section)
Length of headings
Informative wording
How does using parallel structure and content help with writing headings?

CONCLUSION


Read this description of a well-structured set of headings:
  • The heading system is clear and logical
  • The sub-headings are all at the same level and in the same font style
  • The wording of the headings and sub-headings is alike
  • If you used this heading system, the reader would not be confused
This description applies to:
Heading set 1
Heading set 2

What to do

In general, you are expected to use headings correctly so that your writing is clear, and it is obvious that you have answered the set question. There are rules to help you to do this.

Click on the links to see more details and examples.

  1. Rule 1: Design a system of graded headings
  2. Rule2: Distribute information into logical sections
  3. Rule 3: Use three principles to word headings effectively
  4. Rule 4: Punctuate headings correctly and consistently
  5. Rule 5: Link your headings with the text

What NOT to do

There is much to learn from what is NOT wanted. Following are some of the common mistakes made in the use of headings in formal written work:

Click on the links to see more details.

  1. DO NOT rules
  2. AVOID rules

Headings for essay planning

Designing a good headings system is also very helpful for setting up a plan for writing as you can quickly see whether you have included and balanced all of the parts of a question. Make sure your headings match the information you signal in the outline statement of your introduction paragraph.

The following demonstration essay shows you how you can use a system of headings to generate an essay plan. The headings are then incorporated in the essay:

Demonstration communication essay

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