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How to Format Academic Headings?

If you want to ensure easy navigation throughout your research paper, think about appropriate and consistent headings. The ways of dividing the information can vary, but you should ensure that your readers can easily find something specific in your documents when they want to come back to the previous passages. That is why all the information should directly correspond to the headings and subheadings when it is represented below them.

You should always check the clarity and consistency of headings by asking yourself the following questions:

Questions that help check the clarity and consistency of the headings of a research paper

If you answer ‘no’ to at least one of these questions, you will need to reconsider your approach and make your heading clearer.

First of all, you may need the answers to the following questions to get an overall idea of what correct headings should look like.

What Is the Difference Between Headings and Titles?

These two concepts are often confused. At first sight, they seem the same, but it is clear that they are not. The title refers to the entire content of an academic paper and renders it in one or two straightforward phrases. A heading refers to the content of only one chapter of a section. You should be very consistent and careful while making the headings because they should be understandable and related to the title and the specific content of this section.

Should Headings Be Long or Short?

Make your headings as concise as possible. They do not have to exceed one line of text. However, ensure that they clearly communicate the chapter content.

What Are Higher-Level and Lower-Level Headings?

Higher-level headings can be very short. They are commonly accepted for most academic papers because they directly reflect their overall structure. For example, ‘Introduction’ or ‘Conclusions’ are higher-level headings. They give an overview of the chapter, and everybody knows what to expect.

Lower-level headings are longer. They refer to the content of a specific part of the document. They also utilize more distinct terminology and help readers learn more about the exact information they would like to find.

How to Use Descriptive Headings?

Headings, in general, tell the reader about the chapter’s content. That is why they should be as descriptive as possible. You can see how descriptive the following heading examples are. The first is not informative at all, so it is non-descriptive and useless. The three others contain more specific information, so they are descriptive.

For example:

  • VPN
  • ✔️ VPN Technology and Its Role in Online Security
  • ✔️ How VPN Clients Function to Protect Sensitive Information
  • ✔️ History of VPNs and Their Development

Headings Should Not Be Identical

You have to avoid repetitive headings. Every part of your paper should focus on a different portion of the content, so the headings should not be similar to each other. Even if you want to finish every chapter with ‘Summary,’ you may put it as ‘Summary of Results’ or ‘Summary of Opinions.’

Using Technical Terminology in Headings

Keep your readers’ knowledge level in mind. Even if you work in a field that requires using a lot of terms, technical language, or professional jargon, try to keep them all away from headings. If a heading is unclear for everybody who may want to look at it, it is useless. Moreover, if you do not need a term to render the main idea of the chapter, avoid it.

Common Mistakes in Headings and Subheadings

You should also consider some common mistakes in headings and subheadings you should avoid.

Do Not Make Them Full Sentences

Your heading should not read as a full sentence. Try to shorten it by omitting the verb. Avoid too much punctuation, either. You can use colons or question marks but never put a period at the end. You can only do it in Level 4 headings in APA.

Follow the Consistent Structure

The readability of your paper may depend on the consistency of its headings. Check the numbering for spaces and periods. Do not use headings and corresponding subheadings that are not related to each other. If your heading is ‘Experimental Research 1’, do not make subheadings like ‘Home Plants Need More Water’ and ‘How Do You Grow Plants at Home?’ These three ones are not related to each other, and they can make readers confused. You should not be too creative here. Consistency and clarity are more valuable.

Don’t Overload Your Paper with Subheadings

Not all your arguments or every other paragraph need subheadings. They are appropriate for bigger parts and sections with more than one point to consider. Always proofread the document for the number of subheadings you use, or you may distract readers with them.

Heading Formatting and Style Guides

You should make a preliminary plan on how to capitalize, format, and sequence headings and subheadings. All headings of the same level should have the same format. They need to have a parallel structure, too. For example, ‘Section 3.1’, ‘Section 3.2’, ‘Section 4.1’, ‘Section 4.2’, etc. This formatting and capitalization should also correspond to the requirement of the style guide used at your academic institution. It makes sense to check all the instructions or ask your professors before you start writing the headings for your paper.

What Is Automatic Formatting in Word?

You may prefer to save time and effort and use the heading styles from Microsoft Word or Google Docs. It is very convenient. You can generate them automatically and be sure that all of them are formatted correspondingly. You can also automatically add updates to the table of contents if you make any changes in the headings.

Always Consider the Style Guides

Strictly following the style guidelines is essential if you need to submit your paper to your professor or academic journal. The instructions may differ from style to style. For example, following APA means that you can use up to five headings, and that will depend on your paper’s length and complexity. Every lower level will have a different format and punctuation. Headers are usually not numbered here.

MLA and Chicago styles do not have such strict rules for headings and subheadings. Just follow the overall formatting guidelines, like 12-pts Times New Roman Font, 0.5-inch indentation for new paragraphs, and double-spaced text. Pay attention to a hierarchy of headings. Level 1 should be boldface, level 2 is usually italicized, and level 3 demands a smaller font size. Headings and subheadings in Chicago and MLA should be written in title case (with the capitalization of major words). You do not need periods at the end of the headings. You can number the sections with Arabic figures and a period. Then, make a space and type the section name.

Final Thoughts

Therefore, you can see that making and formatting headings and subheadings for your academic paper are not rocket science. In a time, it will become automatic essay writing for you. However, you should be careful about them to make your paper consistent and understandable to readers.

If you follow the tips presented here, you will see that the quality of your documents will change for the better, and they will be highly appreciated by your professors and colleagues.

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