How to Write Genuinely Useful Headings

The headings in your email or larger documents are probably more important to your readers than what you’re actually writing about. Fortunately, it’s easy to figure out both how to write genuinely useful headings and to know where to put them in your emails or documents. How you’ll use your time getting this right, though, depends on whether you’re a planner or a pantser.

useful headings

Most people don’t read all of any document you write. What they actually do is read the parts they’re interested in.

If you think back on your own experience you have to recognize that this is true. Of all the documents that were more two paragraphs long that you got this week, how many did you start reading at the beginning and then continue through, patiently reading word-by-word, to the end? The answer (probably): None. Even for the documents where you did, in the end, read every word, I’d be willing to bet that you started with a quick scan of some selected paragraphs before you resigned yourself to reading the whole thing.

Understanding Your Reading Process

This is the typical way that people process a business-related document. First, readers scan the document looking for key words or graphics. Second, once readers find something that looks potentially valuable, they perform a kind of page analysis: Divide the page into sections, prioritize those sections, and tackle those sections in priority order. And, even then, readers don’t read “word-by-word” — readers often just switch from scanning to skimming: glancing at paragraphs to find the particular part that they care about. Only after all of that skimming and scanning, do readers break down and start reading, word-by-word, the part (or parts…if you’re lucky) of your document that they’ve decided is genuinely valuable to them.

In Learning Tree’s technical writing course we support this reality by  defining a document (anything from an email to a 20-page report) as being made up of sections: A heading followed by some text (and, potentially, some graphics). If you want your document to be read and for your readers to think your document is genuinely useful, you’re going to have to answer two questions: “What should I put in (or cut out) of this section?” and  “What’s the right heading for it?”

Defining Sections

Given that readers don’t read the whole document then headings are vital: Headings give the reader hope that they will, in fact, find the section they need by supporting scanning. And this leads to a better definition of what a ‘section’ is: A section a part of your document that some reader (or readers) will want to read independently of the material around it.

Even then, don’t think that your readers will want to read all of your section. Some parts of your section will be more important to your readers than other parts…and some parts of your section will be of no interest to some readers. As a result, inside your section, you’ll want to follow the ‘triangle principle’: Put what’s most important to most of your readers near the start of the section and put the parts that are less interesting to a smaller part of your audience near the end (I’ve discussed this principle in an earlier post about writing effective emails).

What Your Headings Need to Do

Let’s put it another way: Your document is what your readers have to read. Headings are what your readers want to read — it’s what lets your readers find the sections that matter to them.  Without headings, your document is useless to your readers because they can’t find what they need.

If the purpose of your heading is to help your readers find the section they’re interested in, then a great heading is short enough to be read at a glance while telling the reader exactly what’s in the section  (in other posts I’ve discussed how leveraging simple page layouts and managing your fonts will make sure that your headings are easy for readers to spot).

This purpose also helps define the focus of your headings: Your headings must express what’s valuable about the section to your readers. If you think that your readers value financial information then that’s what your heading should be about; if your readers are interested in the impact on clients/customers then mention that in your headings. If you think that your readers are reading your document to get answers to specific questions, your headings should tell the reader which sections will answer which questions (you might use those questions as your headings as, for example, FAQs do).

Managing Your Time: Planners vs. Pantsers

Obviously, writing a good section heading requires some time. Where you’ll spend that time, however, depends on whether you’re a planner or a pantser.

A planner is someone who plans out their whole document in advance, often by drafting a complete outline. Often planners spend most of their writing time developing their outline and, only when near their deadline, break down and start filling in the sections with actual content. Planners define their headings near the start of their process and then develop the section content that delivers on the promise of the heading. Planners make up about a third of the writing population.

Pantsers, on the other hand, make up their document as they go along (the name comes from the idea that these writers are ‘flying by the seat of their pants’). Pantsers write a little bit, rewrite a little bit, review what they’ve done, write some more, and, basically, keep writing until they hit their deadline. While pantsers always have a general idea of where they are going, they find out what they’re going to write by writing it. Unlike planners, pantsers finalize their headings near the end of the writing process by looking at their document and deciding what each section is about. Pantser’s make up about two-thirds of the writing population.

In making the distinction between planners and pantsers I’m not suggesting one way is better than the other. Studies have shown that readers can’t tell the difference between documents written by planners and those written by pantsers — readers find both sets of documents equally valuable. Write the way that makes sense to you and devise your headings where it makes sense in your process.

Summary

That’s really all I have to say about useful headings…except for one last tip. When it comes to your headings, much will depend on what your document is about and who’s reading it. However, I can give you one guaranteed, a sure-fire tip about useful headings: There is one section heading that guarantees that your section will be read:  “Summary.”

Thanks for reading to the end.

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