headings and subheadings – it helps to be specific

I’d rather not read generic headings. You know the ones I mean, they just say something vague like Introduction, or Methods, or Discussion, or Conclusion.

Generic headings remind me of a cartoon I once saw where the heroine went eagerly into a supermarket only to see aisles and aisles of cans all simply marked ‘food’. It was all terribly 1984-ish, a dystopic shopping experience where all customary choices were removed. In the cartoon, the heroine reacted very badly to this consumer nightmare. She was bewildered and confused – what kind of fruit or soup of fish or meat was contained in the tins? What would go with what? What if what she bought wasn’t what she wanted to eat or indeed, could eat? But the lack of label specificity also created fear – fear that what was inside the tin was some kind of unidentifiable glop that wouldn’t actually resemble any known kind of edible substance… I won’t go on, it’s enough to say that this was the start of a sequence of horrible events.

Of course, generic headings in a report or paper aren’t part of a science fiction plot. They are in fact relatively common. And they don’t give us nightmares or start off a chain of events that spiral out of control. But they are like the generic tin labels in a dreadful supermarket in the sense that they don’t give the reader much help in thinking about what’s coming up. They don’t tell us what kind of methods, or discussion for example we are likely to come across, just that there will be some kind, about something. Such generic headings don’t guide the reading/thinking/writing about the argument or narrative. In fact, the heading should sum up what is to come.

An academic text is generally broken up visually by headings, making it look less intimidating – but the breaks are designed around chunks of stuff. And the chunks are all about a common aspect of the topic. Each chunk is a kind of move in the narrative or argument. The heading refers to the content of the specific chunk.

In workshops, I often ask people to read the title of a paper, its abstract, the headings and subheadings and the conclusion, and then tell me what they think the article is about. Many people are surprised by how much they can tell about the point of the paper simply by doing this very quick activity. Now this activity doesn’t work at all if the headings are generic (or if they are so clever, erudite and elusive that it’s impossible to know what they might be referring to). But when the headings are specific, they are surprisingly informative.

Headings which are informative tell the reader what’s coming up. They thus not only allow readers to follow the argument more easily, but they also allow them to go directly to the part of the paper which most interests them. Very often digital documents rely on headings – they offer a summary of a document using the headings as links so each one can be clicked to access a specific chunk of text. Headings in hard copy are usually in different size fonts for that very same reason – so that the various sections can be located easily.

But you do sometimes read articles where writers do both things – they use the generic label, but then add a semi-colon and a runner to say what is in the section. Methods: something specific. Discussion: something specific. Here the writer is not only signalling what is coming up, but also showing that the paper conforms – or not – to an expected structure.

Academic papers usually have headings and subheadings. Subheadings often provide more specific information than headings, as does the chunk that it encapsulates. The sub-headed chunk drills down into the broader area covered in the section, offering specific detail. Subheadings act as a kind of road map to the section. It is easy for a reader to see what is important within a section just by reading the subheadings. There are sometimes even subheads within subsections – three levels of headings! When this happens, each sub section and sub-sub section becomes more detailed and focused.

Having headings that sum up what a section or sub section or sub sub section is about can also be a very useful to writers. Writers use specific headings to sum up the big moves in an argument or narrative, and to keep themselves on track. Writing advice thus very often suggests headings are written as an outline/plan to guide the writing.

So what does this all look like? Well, if I was writing something extended about methodology for a research report or dissertation, then I might – hypothetically – use headings something like this:

METHODS: NARRATIVE CASE STUDY OF YOUTH UNEMPLOYMENT (level one heading)

Narrative approaches to research (level two heading)

Case study (level two heading)

The sites: three neighbourhoods in poverty (level two heading)

Choosing the subjects (level two heading)
Young people (level three heading)
Youth workers (level three heading)
Parents (level three heading)
Teachers (level three heading)
Employers (level three heading)

Narrative research methods (level two heading)
Participatory visual storytelling (level three heading)
Interviews (level three heading)

Ethical issues (level two heading)

What I did (level two heading)
Sequence of events (level three heading)
Details of the data set (level three heading)

Narrative data analysis (level two heading)

Now I really have just made this up and it’s hardly a perfect research design or an immaculate set of headings. However you probably get the picture. I imagine that the headings that I’ve provided have allowed you to get an idea of what the field work for this imaginary project might actually involve. If all I’d written was generic headings – like site, sample, methods, analysis etc – you wouldn’t have a clue. My hunch is that I’d also find it harder to write the text if the headings were generic than I would if I was addressing each of these specific headings.

In sum, the clearer you are in headings, the more you are able to stay focused as a writer – as is your reader.

(This post is a partial response to a question about headings and another about what has to go into methods discussions. It’s not all I’ve got to say on the question of headings, it is just a start on a tricky topic…)

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About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, generic headings, headings, IMRAD, sub-headings and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to headings and subheadings – it helps to be specific

  1. Julie says:

    Good article, though I’m not sure I mind ‘introduction’ and ‘conclusion’ too much as generic headings. It’s maybe just worth noting that some publishers have definite preferences on this. I wasn’t allowed more than two levels of headings by my publisher – I think they thought too many levels could actually be confusing, and make the text too fragmented. This was for a book, rather than a journal article.

  2. pat thomson says:

    APA has five levels of headings, T and F house style four. So yes worth checking the rules.

  3. Would love to see this style applied to a blog post template!

  4. Chuckling as I review the ongoing tussle I have with myself over my PhD headings. Sometimes it takes me awhile to catch up with the focus of each of my sub-headings – it’s an evolving process

  5. Jonathan O'Donnell says:

    One of the differences between article writing and grant writing is that large grants schemes often mandate the headings.

    This shouldn’t stop people from using clear, meaningful subheadings, though. Grant readers skim, so the more signposts that you provide, the better.

    By the way, I’ve been in the ‘food’ situation. Walking into the dairy aisle of a Scandinavian supermarket, I saw endless cartons of ‘dairy’. Different colours, different text, all dairy. Some milk, some cream, presumably some sour cream, some buttermilk. Perhaps some with raw fish – this was Scandinavia, after all. In the end, I watched to see what most people chose, and took that. It turned out to be milk, which is what I wanted, but if it had been cake-baking day, I might have ended up with a carton of cream.

  6. This is a very ‘nourishing’ and ‘refreshing’ post (just in case everyone was running out of food metaphors)! It’s a reminder of how titles, headings and sub-headings are all part of projecting stance in a coherent argument and therefore need to be looked at again in the final editing throes to make sure they are fitting labels for each section. Maybe, during the process of writing, we can use generic labels in our drafts – just to sketch the layout and create a structure – and then ‘flesh’ (sic!) the headings out at the end using metaphors and a few well chosen classifiers as condiments (oh dear!). But I agree with Johnathan above that there needs to be enough conventional/recognised signalling so that readers can skim (another food metaphor!).

  7. Pingback: Headings and subheadings – it helps to be...

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