Chapter 4: 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 that is standard for this
Note: Students enrolled in the online version of TCM1603 at Austin
Community College, please take the reading quiz
on this chapter. (Anybody else is welcome to try it as well.)
General Guidelines for Headings
In this chapter, and in this course, we use a specific style of
headings. This style is standard, required format in this course. If you
want to use a different style, contact your instructor. Here are some
specific guidelines on headings (see Figures 4-1, 4-2, 4-3, and 4-4 for
illustrations of these guidelines):
Figure 4-1. Heading style and format, standard for
TCM 1603. If you want to use a different format, contact your instructor.
- 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 Figure
4-1. 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
- Make the phrasing of headings parallel. (See the section on parallelism for details.)
- 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
- 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
- Don't use headings as lead-ins to lists or as figure titles.
Headings: Specific Format and Style
In this guide and in this course, 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
To see our "house style" for headings-the style and format for
headings we will use-see Figure 4-1. 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 course:
Follow these guidelines for first-level headings:
- Make first-levels all-caps.
- Use Roman numerals with first-levels.
- Underline or bold the words but not 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.
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.
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
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
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.
Figure 4-2. Headings and outlines: headings
function like outline elements inserted into the text at those points where
Figure 4-3. Common problems with headings: picture these outline items in
the actual text.
Figure 4-4. 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.
Return to the table of contents for the TCM1603 Course Guide
(the online textbook for Austin Community College's online
technical writing course).
This information is owned and maintained by David A. McMurrey. For
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firstname.lastname@example.org or call (512) 476-4949.