Writing about your research or development project can be daunting. But it can also be daunting for your readers if they are faced with pages of text broken only by paragraph spaces and illustrations. It’s easy for them to lose interest and to stop reading. As a technical writer, you have information that you need to share with your readers. So it makes sense to make it as easy as possible for them to continue reading and to understand what you are saying. Using headings is an easy technique to use – it helps simplify both the writing and the reading process. If your style guide doesn’t allow you to include headings, you can use them as you write but remove them during the final review.
Headings serve multiple purposes in helping your readers by
- breaking the text into reader-friendly chunks
- providing signposts for your readers, reminding them where they are in the document
- helping you promote your argument.
As a technical writer, your aim is to lead your readers to reach the same conclusion that you have. Headings provide a context for your readers – both writer and readers begin at the same place and continue along the same path, guided by the headings.
Readers need headings
- to give an overall picture
- to point out where they are in the discussion
- to assist in making the connections between the points of the argument.
Your readers understand the details better if they have been given an overview first. Remember, it’s the headings that provide the overview, especially when you’ve included a table of contents. Readers will retain those details longer when they know in advance the nature of the information they are going to receive. The heading level indicates the degree of detail being discussed, thus allowing those who don’t need to delve into the intricacies to skip over those parts without losing sight of the overall thread of discussion.
Advantages of using headings for the readers:
- They break up the text, and provide overviews along the way.
- They announce each key point before its detailed discussion.
- The location and size of each topic indicates its importance.
- They allow the reader to select what they will read.
- They give readers places to pause, to regroup their thoughts or to rest.
Writers need headings
- to map out the logical flow of your argument
- to make it easier to locate a point if amendment is needed
- to ease collation of contributions by multiple authors.
Advantages of using headings for the writer:
- You can initially put in the main points you want to make under each heading, without worrying about the writing ‘mechanics’.
- You can quite easily move sections to a different place in the document if you can easily see where that section starts and ends.
- You can create sub-headings to help you check the structure, and remove the sub-headings later if your document template or style guide does not allow for that number of levels.
- You do not have to provide transitions between topics.
A word of warning! If your headings feed into an automatically generated table of contents, make sure your final task before publishing is to update the table of contents.
Headings help both writers and readers – as a writer, use them to help make the writing process easier.