Using headings in nonfiction writing

 

Readers faced with pages of text broken only by paragraph spaces will probably feel overwhelmed and stop reading. As a nonfiction 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.

Headings serve multiple purposes in helping your readers by

  • breaking the text into reader-friendly chunks
  • providing signposts for your readers to keep them mindful of the structure of your work
  • 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.

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.

Advantages for readers

  • breaking up the text
  • providing overviews along the way
  • announcing each key point before its detailed discussion
  • using the location and size of each topic to indicate its importance
  • allowing readers to decide where they will start
  • allowing readers to select what parts of the document they will read
  • giving readers places to pause, to regroup their thoughts or to rest.

Advantages for the writer

  • Structuring your document is so much easier!
  • You can readily check the logical flow of the argument.
  • You can move sections to a different place in the document when you can easily see the extent of that section.
  • You can create sub-headings to help you check the structure, and remove the sub-headings later if your document template or format does not allow for that number of levels.
  • You don’t 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.

PS    If, for whatever reason, you can’t include headings, you can use them to help you structure your writing – then delete them during the reviewing process.

  Headings help both the writing and reading processes.

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5 thoughts on “Using headings in nonfiction writing

  1. Excellent tips for writers and very relevant to family/personal history writers, many of whom have not written anything since school days. Brava, Desolie!

    1. I’m sure many of your clients would be inclined just to ramble on – which was something I loved when spending time with my parents.

      But headings (ie a structure) helps them focus on the flow of their story.

      Love your work, Annie.

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